Roberto Gagliardini had a choice to make between Turin and Milan, Juventus and Internazionale, current and former giants. Even though the choice was probably not based on geographical proximity, it may have been a factor as he opted to move from Bergamo to Milan, the metaphorical older brother of the region, the world-famous capital of Lombardy. The Nerrazzuri have splashed money on the young midfielder, enticing him down the road for the hefty price of €28 million and beating Italian heavyweights and rivals Juventus for his signature. But who is Gagliardini? And more importantly, how have Atalanta made this big a profit from their academy graduate?
Bergamo is a scenic and sedate city in Lombardy, compared to the hustle-bustle of Milan. Blessed with rare beauty, the medieval atmosphere makes the city enchanting. It holds an important place in Italian history, for Giuseppe Garibaldi freed it from the Austrian Empire in 1859 and consequently the city was named ‘Città del Mille’ for its large contribution to the Expedition of the Thousand during “Il Risorgimento”. Bergamo is a tale of two cities: Città Bassa is the busy, modern lower city while the Città Alta is the cultural upper city. The city’s football club has a similar structure: the ‘più vecchio’ - the more experienced facet of the side - shoulder the team, allowing the ‘minore’ - the youth - to express themselves. This combination has taken them to fifth place this season, level on points with neighbours Inter in fourth. It is safe to say that the Bergamo faithful are enjoying their football at the moment.
Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio was founded in 1907. Named after the courageous female athlete of Greek mythology (thus gaining the nickname of La Dea - the goddess), the Atalanta that we know today was formed as a result of a merger in 1924 with another team, Bergamasca, thus forming the name ‘Atalanta Bergamasca’. They joined the Italian league in 1929 and first reached the heady heights of Serie A in 1937, since when they have yo-yoed between the top two divisions on a fairly regular basis. Holders of one Serie C and a joint-record six Serie B titles, the club has one only one major piece of silverware, winning the Coppa Italia 54 years ago.
On June 2nd 1963, they faced Torino at the San Siro. If there were any nerves, they didn’t show. Four minutes in, 1-0 to Atalanta, 48 minutes, 2-0 and 81 minutes in, 3-0: an unassailable lead, unthreatened by Torino’s late consolation. The foundations for this success were laid down when the club’s youth team beat Lazio to the Campionato Ragazzi in 1949: Battista Rota and Livio Roncoli started that day and were part of the 1962-63 squad. The defence in the 1963 final was made up of youth products Piero Gardoni, Franco Nodari and Alfredo Pesenti.
However, the orchestrator of this heroic triumph was Angelo Domenghini, the first of their graduates to become a headliner. Born in nearby Lallio, he was picked up by Don Antonio, a priest, at a youth tournament and subsequently joined Atalanta, the club’s investment paying off as the striker/winger scored a hat-trick in the cup final, earning himself Atalanta legend status. Seventeen goals for the Bergamo club paved the path to a dream move to Internazionale and a successful career, which saw him win everything except the World Cup (he was part of the Italy squad that reached the final in 1970). Domenghini was the pioneer of the Bergamasca success, the trendsetter of the future.
Gaetano Scirea, one of the greatest defenders and liberos of all-time, emerged from the Bergamo academy and took his first professional steps at Atalanta before moving to Juventus in 1974, spending 14 years there.
A decade later another youngster destined to become an Italian legend began his career at Atalanta: Roberto Donadoni made his name at AC Milan during their heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but he first graduated from Bergamo, where he won the youth championship in 1982, made his senior debut in Serie B and helped propel them back to the Serie A in 1984. Known for his technique and speed, his rise and subsequent move to the city of Milan inevitably evoked memories of Domenghini, twenty years on.
Today, Riccardo Montolivo and Giampaolo Pazzini, two Italy internationals currently plying their trade at Milan and Hellas Verona respectively, can ascribe their success to the development that they received in Bergamo.
Atalanta are fairly anonymous outside Italy. The essence of their model is to give young players the opportunity to develop, sell them on, and use the money received to bring the next starlet out of Bergamo. The lack of continuity may not appeal to the Curva Nord, but it provides them with long-term sustainability: the club has proven time and again that it has one of the best youth set-ups in Italy, arguably in Europe.
This success is no fluke, as the club emulates one of the most renowned producers of top class footballers in the world: Ajax. Mino Favini, head of the Bergamo academy for more than a decade, had said “we really like the way Ajax deal with young players. They don’t care about results on the pitch; they are only interested in showing all of their youngsters how to play.” The coaches consider the player’s footballing ability as well as his desire to fit into the club ethos.
With this in mind, Atalanta are careful when selecting the coaches of the Settore Giovanile (youth sector), favouring candidates who have gone through the system or played for the club - those who truly understand the meaning of the academy and its significance. Cesare Prandelli, for example, who spent two stints at the club as a player and seven years as youth team coach. Coaches who place trust in the young talent and expect the same in return. Each individual's progress is carefully tracked as they move through the development system, ensuring that they eventually receive the first team opportunities that they deserve. Atalanta cares for its boys.
To mutual benefit, Atalanta have close links with the youth clubs around the area, the Serie A outfit helping these smaller clubs financially, while the smaller clubs in turn inform Atalanta when a promising youngster comes around. The net they cast around the region helps them to stay local. Bergamo youngsters, such as Gagliardini, who know the meaning of wearing the Atalanta shirt, will provide the team with the required dedication. That is not to say that they do not scout overseas. But Atalanta stick with their roots: a humble yet effective strategy.
The Azzurri have at their disposal several Atalanta youth graduates upon whom they can call. Giacomo Bonaventura, one of their most high-profile sales in recent times, stars in Milan’s midfield; Simone Zaza has had a fruitful career at Sassuolo and Juventus and, despite his West Ham nightmare, is now at Valencia; Manolo Gabbiadini didn’t suit Sarri’s style at Napoli but has had a stellar start to his Southampton career; Torino’s Davide Zappacosta, who recently won his first full national cap, received part of his footballing education in Bergamo. Even Manuel Locatelli, the poster-boy of Italian football, began his youth career at Atalanta.
The club’s youth system has paid dividends through the years, winning 17 national titles between 1991 and 2014. And this season the first team is reaping the rewards, sitting in fifth place in Serie A despite defeats in four out of their first five matches. Much of the attention has gone to 20-year-old Franck Kessié. Signed from Stella Club in Abidjan, the Ivorian was loaned out to Cesena last season, where he was converted from a defender to a midfielder. This year, Gian Piero Gasperini gave him his first team chance and he has not disappointed. Comparisons have been made with Yaya Toure, and it is easy to see why. Manchester United and Bayern Munich are among the larger clubs keeping tabs as six goals and four assists in fewer than 1,800 minutes of gametime this season mark a rapid ascent to the top. But he’s not the only one.
Roberto Gagliardini’s January move to Internazionale is a reward for strong midfield performances this year, following on from loan spells at Cesena, Spezia and Vicenza. Is the €28 million price tag worth it? Inter are paying for potential, and Gagliardini has shown enough to suggest that he is worth the investment. The likely heart of Italy and Inter’s midfield in the future, but born and bred in Bergamo. That’s a matter of pride for Atalanta.
Similarly Mattia Caldara, who spent two years out on loan to Trapani and Cesena, became a first choice centre-back this season and performed well enough to be swiftly snapped up by Juventus, the fee potentially reaching €25 million. One for the future, but a beneficial deal for Atalanta as they keep the defender till the summer of 2018 on a free loan. A decision that suits all parties, as Juventus look set to receive an experienced, accomplished 24-year-old defender next year, while Atalanta also get to keep benefitting from his ability in the meantime.
Caldara and Gagliardini have signed on, as has midfielder Alberto Grassi, who has been loaned back to Atalanta, having signed for Napoli, and it’s only a matter of time before Kessié does likewise. Behind them, others may well follow. Andrea Conti is impressing at right-back. Andrea Petagna is starring for the team after being rejected by Milan. Alessandro Bastoni and Filippo Melegoni, both only 17, recently made their first team debuts, while Ecuador under-20 international Bryan Cabezas has recently joined the club. Other Primavera stars who could soon join the professional ranks include Cristian Capone, Matteo Gasperoni and Emmanuel Latte.
Led by inspirational captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez, the mix of experienced heads (Andrea Masiello, Jasmin Kurtic, Ervin Zukanovic, Etrit Berisha) and younger talents has been a perfect combination. Gasperini’s willingness to give youth its chance (in a potentially tough match against Napoli he picked four Italy under-21 internationals and was rewarded with a 1-0 win) has repaid the confidence shown in him by president Antonio Percassi, and he has found the balance that has seen the team become legitimate candidates for the European places.
Gasperini has spoken about building on these foundations to create a club that can compete with the top teams eventually, and careful polishing of the team’s current crown jewels could reap great rewards. This is the start of something special at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. From Domenghini, Scirea and Donadoni to Bonaventura, Caldara and Gagliardini, La Dea has truly blessed Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio.
By Rahul Warrier