‘Christmas has come early’ was the general feeling coming out of the Atalanta camp in the aftermath of the Champions League draw in mid-December. The competition’s greatest surprise package this season had somehow made it into the last 16, and were drawn against Valencia.
Whilst Los Che will be no easy pushovers, it’s generally agreed that La Dea, and their Spanish opponents, could have got a much tougher draw. Both sides avoided the heavy-hitters, and both stand with a realistic chance of reaching the quarter final.
Valencia of course have ventured down this road before. Twice finalists at the turn of the century under Hector Cuper, they’ve also reached the last eight on one other occasion.
For Atalanta, this is all new terrain, and they became only the second side to qualify for the next round of the competition after losing their opening three games. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men initially struggled to grasp the rise in quality in Europe’s premiere competition, but by the end of the group stage, and particularly in their savvy dismantling of Shakhtar Donetsk away from home, they showed that both coach and players had learned how to navigate the ruthless waters of the Champions League.
What is important to remember in all this is that their fairy-tale story isn’t down to a billionaire benefactor, or being propped up by a state-funded conglomerate. Atalanta’s wage bill isn’t even in the top ten in Serie A, their passage through to the Round of 16 has earned them close to €50m in extra revenue; their entire wage bill is €36m.
Atalanta’s success can be put down to almost old-fashioned footballing values in the current, money-saturated climate: scouting, patience, intelligent coaching and smart investments.
Their youth academy, located on the outskirts of the city, has been lauded for its ability to seemingly churn out an endless supply of top class talent. Whilst Gasperini rightfully deserves credit for Atalanta’s recent descent to unimaginable heights, a solid foundation has underpinned the club’s recent success.
Their most recent batch of talent emerged in the 2016-17 season. The likes of Franck Kessie, Mattia Caldara and Roberto Gagliardini rose to prominence under Gasperini, in addition to redeveloping talent like Leonardo Spinazzola and Bryan Cristante. They finished fourth and qualified for European football for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Kessie, Gagliardini and Caldara sales generated in excess of €60m, Cristante would also leave a year later for €30m. That money was, for the first time, reinvested in buying players for big fees. This was a departure from the club’s long-held ethos of developing and then selling young players.
The move worked, they secured third spot in Serie A last season with time to spare, and also made it to the final of the Coppa Italia, losing to Lazio.
What should also be mentioned that unlike all-but-four clubs in the country, Atalanta own their stadium, which they purchased from the council for €8.6m. They redeveloped the Curva Nord last summer, and will rebuild each section for the next two summers, turning the renamed Gewiss Stadium into a 23,000-seater stadium a modern structure to be proud of.
“I see myself as the Italian Sir Alex Ferguson,” said Gasperini recently. The 61-year-old is perfectly aware that he could move to a bigger side, yet as he also admitted, he wouldn’t have the freedom to make the decisions he currently does with Atalanta. Gasperini gives off the impression of a coach who is content with where he is, knowing he’s cherished in Bergamo.
The foundations are there for the club to remain a permanent fixture amongst the heavyweights of the Italian game. Now sitting six points clear of Roma in the race for the last Champions League spot, another run in the competition next season would bring in further revenue that can be reinvested in the squad, allowing the club to continually challenge for European places.
Atalanta’s fans should continue to dream, but should they make history and reach the final eight, whilst seeing off Roma for fourth spot, perhaps they don’t have to dream anymore. La Dea could be here to stay.