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How Atalanta survived a nightmare year to continue their Champions League dream

Atalanta
(Image credit: PA Images)

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now and save 37%!

More than 40,000 Atalanta fans were on their feet, roaring Hans Hateboer on as he surged clear towards goal. 

A third of Bergamo’s population had gathered at Milan’s San Siro, to witness the high point of the club’s 113-year existence. 

Hateboer steadied himself, before crashing the ball into the net. Atalanta 4 Valencia 0, in the last 16 of the Champions League. For an unfancied side making their first appearance in Europe’s elite club competition, the score barely seemed possible. 

“In such an important moment, with all of those people at San Siro, I think that was the best match in Atalanta’s history,” Hateboer tells FourFourTwo, as he thinks back to that game last February. “These are the kinds of things you dream about as a kid.” That Atalanta had even made it out of the group phase was miraculous enough, after taking just one point from their opening four matches. Now they were on their way to the quarter-finals – and they had only played an hour of the first leg. 

By the time the second arrived, everything had changed in Bergamo. There would be no celebrations on the streets when Atalanta sealed their passage into the last eight. In the northern Italian city, people were dying. Few places in the world have been affected by coronavirus as badly as Bergamo, and football may have unwittingly played a part. 

That famous, joyous night against Valencia has since been labelled a ‘biological bomb’. Soon, photographs were beamed around the globe of military trucks carrying coffins out of Bergamo, as the death toll overwhelmed local morgues. 

“When I saw all those pictures, it was like someone squeezed my heart,” says lifelong Atalanta fan Matteo Scarpellini. “I don’t know a family here that hasn’t had a loss.” 

Within weeks, a football-mad city had gone from one of its greatest moments to one of its worst.

Just 120,000 people reside in Bergamo, 30 miles north-east of Milan. “Atalanta is a kind of religion here,” explains Scarpellini, 45. “My family took me to my first game when I was six months old. For 10 years now, the club president, Antonio Percassi, has given a gift to every child born in the local hospital – a shirt with their name on, so they grow up with the colours in their mind.” 

Named after a female character from Greek mythology, Atalanta’s history on the field has not quite matched that of neighbours Milan and Inter. Their one major trophy, the Coppa Italia, arrived in 1962-63. They were knocked out of Europe in the first round the following season – until recently, the club’s only other continental campaigns were in the late-80s and early-90s. Their best run – reaching the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup – came in 1988, despite playing in Serie B and losing the first leg of their first-round tie at Merthyr Tydfil. Atalanta remain one of just two clubs to have reached a European semi-final from outside the top flight – Cardiff did the same, 20 years earlier. 

The yoyo side were relegated from Serie A on five occasions between 1994 and 2010. When they last dropped into the second tier, 10 years ago, Percassi returned for a second tenure as president. La Dea (The Goddess) bounced straight back to the top division as Serie B champions, but spent the next five seasons in the bottom half. 

“In the past, Atalanta’s aim was to stay in Serie A,” says Carlo Canavesi, another lifelong fan who is now a journalist for newspaper L’Eco di Bergamo, and Bergamo TV. 

After the team had scored only 41 goals in 38 league games in 2015-16, Percassi made a change – bringing in Gian Piero Gasperini as the club’s new manager. The silver-haired boss had previously lasted just five matches as Inter coach – drawing one and losing four, before getting the chop in 2011. But he was known for swashbuckling attacking football and a fluid 3-4-3 system. 

Atalanta

(Image credit: PA Images)

Gasperini had to overcome an early scare: like with the Nerazzurri, he lost four of his first five league matches in charge. Percassi stuck by him, though, and his methods soon began to pay dividends. “He changed the mentality of the team,” explains Canavesi. “Now every time Atalanta play, they play to win.” 

That season, Atalanta incredibly came 4th and qualified for the Europa League. A year later, they proved it was no fluke by coming 7th. In 2019, a remarkable third-place finish – as Serie A top scorers with 77 goals – gave them a first ever Champions League place. 

“I hugged one of my best friends and then we cried together,” admits Scarpellini of the day their Champions League spot was sealed, as they pipped Milan and Roma on the final weekend of the season thanks to a 3-1 win at home to Sassuolo. “Most people around us were crying, because it was an unexpected dream for a small club – like Watford getting into the Champions League.”

Atalanta’s average attendance in 2018-19 was only 18,000 – the 13th-highest in Serie A – and their Gewiss Stadium has been unable to host European football amid renovation, after being denied a UEFA licence. 

La Dea headed 120 miles south to play two Europa League campaigns at Reggio Emilia’s Mapei Stadium. Atalanta trounced Everton 3-0 there in 2017, then travelled to Goodison Park and won 5-1 before Borussia Dortmund eliminated them in the last-32. 

They chose the 75,000-capacity San Siro to host Champions League matches, but kicked off by losing 4-0 at Dinamo Zagreb. “We came into the Champions League with no expectations, saying, ‘We can pick up zero points, it’s no problem, we’re already lucky to be here’,” says Scarpellini, who was there in Croatia. “But when we lost 4-0, it was really frustrating. We felt sorry for the players.” 

After three games, things weren’t looking good. In their first group match at San Siro, Atalanta pushed for an injury-time winner, only for Shakhtar Donetsk to break away and bag a 2-1 victory. Against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick and Atalanta were annihilated 5-1. Their vast inexperience at Champions League level was showing. 

Not since Newcastle in 2002 had any team progressed after losing each of their opening three games. Bobby Robson’s side won their fourth fixture, but Atalanta didn’t – drawing 1-1 at home to City. The visitors held out with Kyle Walker in goal, after an injury to Ederson and a red card for backup Claudio Bravo. But Atalanta took encouragement from the way they had responded from being an early goal down to one of the tournament favourites. The turning point came when Gabriel Jesus fired a penalty wide at 1-0. 

“Immediately after the match, we were all frustrated,” reveals Netherlands international Hateboer. “But when we thought about it, we realised that we had got lucky. The penalty changed something. We were stronger after that, and knew we could play against those teams. It gave us confidence.” 

That night, Atalanta had come very close to effective elimination for another reason – had Dinamo overcome Shakhtar in the other match, Atalanta would have required a 4-0 victory against the Croatians to rescue any hope at all. Shakhtar were trailing 3-1 in the 93rd minute, but rallied to earn an unlikely draw in Zagreb. 

“If you have just one point after four games, usually you’re f**ked,” smiles Scarpellini. “But after the good performance against City, we thought we could do it.” 

Atalanta beat Dinamo 2-0, and suddenly success in Ukraine would put them through. They saved the best result for last, defeating Shakhtar 3-0. When the squad arrived back in Bergamo at 3am, thousands of supporters were waiting at the airport to celebrate their qualification for the last 16. “It was beautiful, it felt like a dream,” remembers Hateboer of that night’s revelry. 

When the first leg against Valencia arrived on February 19, Atalanta sat inside Serie A’s top four once more. Results this season included a 7-1 win over Udinese, 5-0 routs of Parma and mighty Milan, plus a 7-0 romp at Torino. 

Their forward line was running amok: with Argentine playmaker Papu Gomez pulling the strings, Slovenian Josip Ilicic could plunder goals alongside Colombian strike duo Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel. “It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Valencia, Lecce or Juventus – we’ll always play our way,” says right-sided midfielder Hateboer. 

The ex-Groningen man opened the scoring after a quarter of an hour against Valencia, then Ilicic and Remo Freuler cracked home further goals from outside the penalty area. When Hateboer charged clear to score his second and make it 4-0 after 62 minutes – he hadn’t netted all season before that night – the tie was effectively over. 

Atalanta

(Image credit: PA Images)

“People thought, ‘This isn’t real – Atalanta can’t be winning 4-0 in the knockout stages of the Champions League’,” says Canavesi. “But it was real, and it was incredible.” 

Valencia quickly pulled one goal back, but the 4-1 win will remain long in the memory. “That was the best match in my entire life,” beams Hateboer. “All my family were in the ground – 15 or 20 people came to watch me play, and 40,000 from Bergamo.” 

Scarpellini was among them. “It was like our entire city transferred to Milan,” he says. “It was magical. Before the game, I met a lot of my friends: Atalanta fans who had come from abroad to see the match. We had some drinks and spent a couple of hours together. The whole day was very happy.” 

At the time, few realised the danger those gatherings might pose. Italy hadn’t suffered a single coronavirus death, and the northern region of Lombardy didn’t yet have its first confirmed case. 

“There were no cases in Bergamo, so fans went to San Siro with an easy mentality, not thinking about the risk,” says Canavesi. “Two weeks later, we understood that match was crucial. A lot of people probably got it there.” 

Unknown to everyone, the deadly disease was already circulating in the region. “The game was a biological bomb,” said Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori. 

Days after the Valencia victory, Atalanta’s league game against Sassuolo was called off as the first cases in Lombardy started to be confirmed. A week later, the team and even its supporters were allowed to travel to Italy’s deep south to play Lecce – although only 30 fans opted to make the 2,000km round trip, despite more tickets being sold. 

Atalanta won 7-2. It was their last league fixture for some time: their home game with Lazio was postponed, then the whole of Serie A was halted. 

Two days ahead of the Champions League second leg at Valencia, Bergamo went into lockdown. “Everyone had been ready to go,” says Scarpellini. “I had the flight ticket and a hotel booked, then a couple of days before the game they said, ‘No, the match will be behind closed doors’.” 

The first leg may have spread the virus to Valencia, too, after Spanish fans had flown home from Italy. The second leg was played in an eerie atmosphere at an empty Mestalla – Atalanta came from 3-2 down to win 4-3, with Ilicic scoring all four goals, but no fans were there to witness it. 

“It felt a bit like a friendly match,” explains Hateboer. After the final whistle, the team held up a T-shirt saying, ‘Bergamo, this is for you: don’t give up’. 

Back in Bergamo, there was no celebration. This time, no one gathered at the airport to greet their heroes. The city had become the epicentre of Italy’s outbreak. 

“You’d expect to see people dancing out on the streets, celebrating a big result like that,” says Canavesi. “But no one left their homes. For two months, there was no one out on the streets. All day, we listened to ambulances – every 10 minutes, you’d hear one.” 

When the players arrived back from Spain, the city they returned to was very different to the one they had left. “When we won in Valencia, we were so happy,” says Hateboer. “But when we got back to Bergamo, we went from joy to sadness – a big contrast straight away. I lived at the training ground with some other players for a couple of weeks, but after that I wanted to go home. I was alone, but couldn’t be at the training ground any more.” 

Players and staff pledged €50,000 to the city’s main hospital, which was increasingly struggling to cope. Supporters donated the refunds from their cancelled trip to Valencia, giving €60,000 in total, and also pitched in to help build a medical facility in just five days. 

By the end of June, Bergamo officially had more than 3,000 deaths due to coronavirus, although reports suggest the real figure may have been twice as high. Around 57 per cent of the population was estimated to have had the virus. “I lost two uncles and one cousin,” admits Scarpellini. “I live in a village of 6,000 people, and 53 died.” 

He enlisted the help of former Arsenal and Italy Under-21 goalkeeper Vito Mannone – a product of Atalanta’s revered youth system – to raise around €7,000, and resents the fact that fans have been blamed for the outbreak. “I wasn’t very happy to read that because of Atalanta, everyone got ill,” he says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh you see, everyone got it from the Valencia game’. I’m not stupid enough to say some people didn’t, but it wasn’t the main reason – in my opinion it was the economy. 

“We started the lockdown two weeks too late, because this is a huge area for business – Milan and Bergamo is the engine of Italy. We’re very angry with the government. We lost two generations of Bergamaschi and we can’t forgive them.” 

Atalanta’s second-choice keeper Marco Sportiello was confirmed to have coronavirus, while manager Gasperini revealed he had felt unwell after the game in Valencia. “I thought about death,” said the 62-year-old, adding he had tested positive for antibodies. 

The club faced a different tragedy in May, when 19-year-old midfielder Andrea Rinaldi died after suffering a brain aneurysm. One of many youth team stars, he had been among 65 players out on loan. 

On June 21, Atalanta returned to action with a 4-1 victory against Sassuolo behind closed doors. Three matches into the restart, they surpassed last year’s goal tally – reaching 80 goals from 28 matches. They had netted as many as Napoli and Milan combined, keeping them on track to secure another Champions League campaign next season. 

In August, they resumed the Champions League, five months after ousting Valencia. There was no triumphant home leg return in front of thousands – instead, a solitary tie on neutral territory in Lisbon. 

“A lot of the people who died were Atalanta fans,” said Scarpellini, ahead of the quarter-final last summer. “Obviously, we wanted to enjoy this quarter-final in a different way. Atalanta are a very unlucky club. We’ve won one trophy, the Coppa Italia in 1963, and that night the Pope died. He was from Bergamo, an Atalanta fan, so the players didn’t have a party to celebrate winning the cup. In 2007, for our centenary, we organised something for those players. 

“Now, it’s important to remember all the people who died – it’s more important than football, more important than everything. We will remember them, and one day we will have a party for what this team achieved.” 

In the end, Atalanta were moments from the semi-finals – leading PSG 1-0 until the 90th minute, two agonisingly late goals saw the French side advance instead.

But they have proved themselves more than just a one-season wonder. Back in the Champions League again after a third-place Serie A finish – scoring more goals than any side in 60 years in the process – they have again advanced through the group stage and once more face Spanish opponents in the first knockout round.

The party will have to wait, and what they will be celebrating could be still to come.

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