'Is This Really Happening?' Fans' View of Atalanta's Champions League Miracle

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 18, 2020

REGGIO NELL'EMILIA, ITALY - MAY 26:  Atalanta BC fans during the Serie A match between Atalanta BC and US Sassuolo at Mapei Stadium - Citta  del Tricolore on May 26, 2019 in Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy  (Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)
Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Matteo Scarpellini attended his first Atalanta game when he was only 10 months old. Carried by an uncle who wanted to "baptise" him in the club's traditions, he was part of a crowd that saw them defeat Catanzaro 1-0 on the opening day of the 1975-76 Serie B season. He has followed the club devotedly ever since.

"If you're born in Bergamo, you have to be Atalantino," Scarpellini tells Bleacher Report. 

"My family is Atalanta, every one of the family. We live in an area where there are a lot of Inter and AC Milan fans, because Milan is pretty close. Also Juventus. But we teach the kids when they're born to follow Atalanta. You have no choiceyou have to be an Atalanta fan."

They start them young in Bergamo, the northern Italian city that Atalanta call home. In an initiative launched by president Antonio Percassi following his return to the club in 2010, every infant born in the Lombardy city is sent a mini Atalanta replica kit along with two bottles of locally produced baby milk.

Hailing from a city with a population of only 122,000, Atalanta prides itself on being a family club, but it is also welcoming to outsiders, as the legion of overseas supporters who have fallen for the rustic charms of the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia over the years can testify.

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"We have a really good network of international fans," says Nigel Mannering, an Atalanta fan from Portsmouth in southern England. "There's all the Italians and the guys in Bergamo, but we have fans in Norway, we have fans in Poland, in Ireland, there's French fans, there's a couple of Germans, there's Dutch. We've all kind of mingled and got to know each other."

Conor Clancy, an Irish football journalist and Atalanta supporter who lives in Parma, recalls seeing his bewildered father being embraced by a couple of jubilant locals on the Curva Nord following a late winner against Inter Milan in October 2016.

"It's one of those experiences that sticks with you," Clancy says. "There's a real family feel."

Since Gian Piero Gasperini took over as head coach in the summer of 2016, Atalanta's homely charms have given way to something altogether more spectacular. Despite operating on a shoestring budget compared to Serie A's biggest clubs, La Dea ("The Goddess") qualified for the UEFA Champions League last season for the first time in the club's history, having previously ended a 27-year wait for European football by making it into the UEFA Europa League in 2017.

In their maiden Champions League campaign, they became the first team since Newcastle United in 2002-03 to progress from the competition's group phase after losing their first three matches. Gasperini's free-scoring side face Valencia in the first leg of their last 16 tie on Wednesday, and for supporters raised on a steady diet of relegation scraps and early cup exits, it is all taking a bit of getting used to.

"It is really hard to explain just how much this run means," says Clancy. "With every game, the fans are pinching themselves and going, 'Is this really happening?' The way they managed to go through just adds to the dream-like nature of it. It doesn't quite seem real and it hasn't seemed real for the last three or four years."

Atalanta secured their place in this season's competition with a 3-1 win over Sassuolo on the final day of last season. For a club that has been relegated to Serie B and promoted back three times in the 21st century, it was a scarcely believable achievement. For Scarpellini, it had even deeper meaning.

"I have a very strong memory, even a bit sad, because it was the last time I saw my close friend Tito," he says. "Eleven days later, he died of a heart attack aged 53. I remember hugging him after the game. We were cryingalmost everyone was crying. It was a dream come true. I was hugging him and saying, 'We're in the Champions League, Tito! I can't believe it!'

"That feeling, supporters of the top teams can't realise how beautiful it is. Because they are used to it. When you are a supporter of a small club and for some reason you achieve something big like this, you lose yourself. If you support a small club, all the terraces become your friends. More than friendsthey're family."

                  

Matchday 1: Dinamo Zagreb 4-0 Atalanta

Drawn alongside Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta were the only team in Group C not to have won their national championship the previous season. Few teams relish a visit to Dinamo's intimidating Stadion Maksimir, but none of the Atalanta fans who made the trip to the Croatian capital for their team's first-ever Champions League game could have anticipated quite how uncomfortable an evening it would prove to be.

Atalanta's Colombian forward Zapata Duval (R) and Gambian forward Musa Barrow (L) react at the end of the UEFA Champions League Group C football match GNK Dinamo vs Atalanta BC in Zagreb, Croatia, on September 18, 2019. - Dinamo won the match 4-0. (Photo
DAMIR SENCAR/Getty Images

The visitors were 3-0 down at half-time and conceded a fourth goal when Mislav Orsic tucked away his hat-trick goal in the 68th minute. After the dizzy highs of the previous three years, their maiden Champions League campaign began with a brutal reality check.

"Atalanta got stage fright," says Eirik Stangnes, an Atalanta fan from northern Norway who has come to consider Bergamo his "second home". "They weren't prepared for it. They got absolutely battered."

                   

Matchday 2: Atalanta 1-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

Obliged to play their home games at San Siro because of renovation work at their own stadium, Atalanta scored their first Champions League goal courtesy of Duvan Zapata's 28th-minute header, only for things to fall apart again.

Junior Moraes equalised for Shakhtar before half-time and then, with Atalanta flooding forward in search of a winner, Gasperini's men were hit with a sucker punch in the fifth minute of stoppage time when Dodo played in fellow substitute Manor Solomon to smuggle home the winner.

Shakhtar Donetsk's Israeli forward Manor Solomon (Rear R) celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League Group C stage football match Atalanta Bergamo vs Shakhtar Donetsk on October 1, 2019 at San Siro stadium in Milan. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO
VINCENZO PINTO/Getty Images

"It was an absolute sickener," recalls English fan Mannering. "Given the way the first game had gone, then you concede a goal with literally the last kick of the game to lose the second game. Knowing that we'd got Man City home and away to come after that, I basically felt that was it. We were out."

                    

Matchday 3: Manchester City 5-1 Atalanta

Ruslan Malinovskyi's 28th-minute penalty fleetingly nourished hope of an upset among the Atalanta supporters at the Etihad Stadium, but a quickfire Sergio Aguero brace allowed the home side go in 2-1 up at half-time, and Raheem Sterling's second-half hat-trick put the game to bed in emphatic fashion.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22: An artistic view of Raheem Sterling of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between Manchester City and Atalanta at Etihad Stadium on October 22, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Rob
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

At the halfway stage in the group, Atalanta were rock bottom with no points from their first three matches, only two goals scored and no fewer than 11 conceded. Since the Champions League's second group phase was scrapped in 2003, no team had ever progressed to the knockout phase after losing their first three matches. But the remarkable durability that Atalanta have displayed under Gasperini meant that not all of their supporters were prepared to abandon hope just yet.

"Given what's happened in the last few years, there's never the feeling that anything's dead with this team," says Clancy. "You can never write them off."

                  

Matchday 4: Atalanta 1-1 Manchester City

With 42 minutes on the clock in Atalanta's return fixture against City, their Champions League goose looked well and truly cooked. Sterling had given City an early lead and after Josip Ilicic was penalised for handball, Gabriel Jesus stood poised to double the visitors' lead from the penalty spot.

Atalanta's Croatian midfielder Mario Pasalic (R) celebrates after scoring a header past Manchester City's Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo (L) to equalize during the UEFA Champions League Group C football match Atalanta Bergamo vs Manchester City on Novem
MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

But the Brazilian fluffed his lines, hopelessly scuffing his spot-kick wide of the left-hand post, and four minutes into the second half, Mario Pasalic headed in an equaliser from Papu Gomez's cross. With Shakhtar scoring twice in stoppage time to snatch a 3-3 draw at Dinamo in the other group game, it gave Atalanta a fighting chance of squeezing into the last 16.

"When Gabriel Jesus missed the penalty was a very important moment," says Andrea Mastrovito, a Bergamo-born artist and Atalanta die-hard who regularly flies in from New York to watch his team's matches. "Maybe the most important moment. The whole stadium felt that we could do it. Everything changed in that moment."

                      

Matchday 5: Atalanta 2-0 Dinamo Zagreb

Atalanta had to beat Dinamo in their penultimate match and hope Shakhtar failed to win at City to stand any chance of going through to the knockout phase. They claimed their first Champions League victory thanks to goals in each half from Luis Muriel and Gomez, while Shakhtar came away from the Etihad with a 1-1 draw. Against all probability, it was still on.

Atalanta's Argentinian forward Papu Gomez celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group C football match Atalanta Bergamo vs Dinamo Zagreb on November 26, 2019 at the San Siro stadium in Milan. (Photo by MIGUEL MED
MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

"With the 2-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb, it was like Europe was really seeing what Atalanta were about," says Clancy. "They had big momentum going away to Ukraine for the last game. That's when the belief really took off."

                   

Matchday 6: Shakhtar Donetsk 0-3 Atalanta

Half an hour from the end of their final group game in Kharkiv, with the score goalless, Atalanta were heading out and Shakhtar were going through. The fates seemed to be conspiring against the away side when Timothy Castagne's close-range effort in the 66th minute was ruled out for offside, but a millimetric VAR review overturned the decision, sparking delirium among the visiting supporters.

Atalanta's German defender Robin Gosens celebrates after scoring the team's third goal during the UEFA Champions League group C football match between FC Shakhtar Donetsk and Atalanta BC at the Metallist stadium in Kharkiv on December 11, 2019. (Photo by
SERGEI SUPINSKY/Getty Images

After Dodo was sent off for catching Remo Freuler in the face with his hand, Atalanta rubberstamped their wholly improbable passage to the last 16 with late goals from Pasalic and Robin Gosens. Back home in Bergamo, thousands of fans streamed to the airport to await their returning heroes.

"Everybody who was in Bergamo went to the airport to wait for the players to come back," says Scarpellini. "You can imagine: fireworks everywhere, smoke. It was amazing. It was a night you had to be there."

Having travelled to Ukraine to watch the match among Atalanta's ultras, Mastrovito arrived back in Bergamo a couple of hours after the squad had passed through the airport.

"We arrived in Bergamo at five in the morning," he says. "I also had jet lag, so I didn't want to go to sleep. I was so excited. I waited for the newspaper store to open and I bought all of the newspapers. I had a very big, beautiful breakfast in the most beautiful bar in town and then I went to bed at 10 in the morning. I put all of the newspapers on the floor in my room so that when I woke up, I'd understand that it hadn't just been a dream."

                   

Round of 16: Atalanta v Valencia

The draw for the round of 16 could have provided Atalanta with more glamorous opposition than a hit-and-miss Valencia side, but the feeling among the club's fans is that it offered their team the best possible chance of continuing their Champions League adventure. "Valencia are a very good side, but we can do something," says Scarpellini.

Yet while Gasperini and his players can harbour realistic ambitions of reaching the quarter-finals, there seems little danger of anybody within their fanbase losing perspective.

"Over the last few years, we must have had 10 of those games where you go, 'This is the best game in the history of the club.' It's just absolutely amazing," says Norwegian fan Stangnes. "Everyone in Bergamo knows the bubble will burst someday. The fans don't think we're going to be up there every year. When you're a small club, you've just got to enjoy it while it lasts."

As Mastrovito explains: "Whatever happens, everybody will love this team forever."