In any other season, the biggest story in Serie A football would have been Juventus’ record sixth straight scudetto. But in 2016-17, Juve was overshadowed by Atalanta BC, who followed up a disappointing 13th place finish in 2015-16 with their best season in franchise history, finishing fourth overall with a record of 21-9-8. “Atalanta’s success can be attributed to two things,” says Carlo Campo, senior soccer editor at theScore. “One of Italy’s finest academies and [coach] Gian Piero Gasperini.” And the two, he says, are connected. “When La Dea [The Goddess, Atalanta’s nickname] started the Serie A season with four losses in five games, the manager turned to the products of the club’s youth system, rolling the dice on footballers like Mattia Caldara, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti and Franck Kessie,” Campo explains. “The gamble paid off, and it was a wonderful reminder of what can be achieved when faith is put in an academy.”
Thanks to the risks taken by Gasperini, Atalanta finished two spots ahead of Serie A powerhouse AC Milan and qualified for Europa League play for the first time in 26 years – no small accomplishment for a team often referred to as Regina delle provinciali (queen of the provincial clubs) because of its location in the relatively small city of Bergamo. “Atalanta’s fourth-place finish in Serie A is a very big deal,” Campo says. “Not only was it La Dea’s best-ever season in the top flight of Italian football but – in a league where there’s a direct correlation between how much a club spends and its position in the table – it went against the narrative, reminding supporters that money isn’t the only path to European football.”
What Atalanta lacks in size or money, it more than makes up for in fan support. “The fans are extremely passionate about Atalanta and are amongst the best in all of Italy,” says Andrea
Lombardo, a Toronto native who started his professional career with Atalanta from 2004-06. “The true passion of the fans became clear to me when I went to watch the derby between Atalanta and Brescia in my first year there. The riots outside the stadium between fans before the match, and then the passion of the ultras in the curve during the match was something I had never seen in my life.”
Lombardo, who played for Toronto FC from 2007-08, looks back fondly on his time in Italy. “Bergamo is beautiful,” he says, “and the team made me feel welcome right from the get-go and helped me settle in nicely.” What’s unique about the city, he says, is that it’s small enough for people to recognize the players out on the streets, which might explain the strong connection between fans and the club.
Like Campo, Lombardo believes that Atalanta’s success last season was a result of a combination of factors. “For a provincial team to qualify for European soccer is a testament to the work that is being done throughout the entire club,” he says. “Atalanta is among the top academies in all of Europe, and they pride themselves on developing their young players and eventually giving them a chance to play in the first team. This year the work of the entire first team and academy over the years paid off and is showing that you can develop young talent, give them a chance to play with the first team and still achieve immense success.”
The one downside to the team’s success, however, is that they are likely to lose several of their key players to bigger clubs. “Atalanta’s squad is being picked apart by Serie A’s vultures,” Campo says. “La Dea doesn’t have the resources to hold on to its best players.”
One player who is likely to return next season is Papu Gómez, who led the team in goals last year with 16 and is signed until 2020. Fans can also look forward to a new stadium in Bergamo, which is expected to be ready before the 2020-21 season.