Atalanta reap benefit of wise investment

Letter From Bergamo
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The Independent Online

In a championship where tycoons buy foreign stars at jaw-dropping prices in their never-ending quest to build a successful team, one northern Italian club is successfully bucking the trend. There are never any language problems at Atalanta, promoted this season to Serie A, because they always field a 100 per cent Italian side. What is more, most of them are products of Atalanta's own vivaio ("nursery") whose footballing skills were spotted and developed by the club over the past decade.

In a championship where tycoons buy foreign stars at jaw-dropping prices in their never-ending quest to build a successful team, one northern Italian club is successfully bucking the trend. There are never any language problems at Atalanta, promoted this season to Serie A, because they always field a 100 per cent Italian side. What is more, most of them are products of Atalanta's own vivaio ("nursery") whose footballing skills were spotted and developed by the club over the past decade.

The club invested heavily in youngsters from the 1970s onwards. Not only did they see this as a way of improving their team, but it was also an economic necessity. Atalanta did not have the money to buy overseas stars, and developing their own players and selling them on has become a source of both income and prestige.

Based in the northern city of Bergamo, Atalanta currently spend an annual 3.5 billion lire (£1.15m) on their youth scheme, far more than any other provincial side. They have a series of houses and hostels, run by priests, where the youngsters and their families can be lodged and "observation posts" in Tuscany and the Veneto, where promising youngsters can be put through their paces.

Another concrete sign of their commitment is a new sporting complex under construction at the village of Zingonia, Atalanta's headquarters. There will be a new accommodation complex, pitches and a training centre.

Ironically, as the unprecedented immigration of the last decade has begun transforming Italy into a multi-ethnic society, the Italianness that has been such a feature of Atalanta is changing. In the vivaio there are many foreign youngsters who have recently arrived from spots as far flung as Moldovia and Nigeria, plus many children of immigrant parents.

The face behind the formidable Atalanta vivaio is Mino Favini, a former player turned talent scout. He has been persistently courted by Internazionale but has preferred to finish the job he started. Bergamo, a wealthy provincial city that lives off the textiles industry, is revelling in the success of its local team. With a reputation for local pride that borders on xenophobia, Atalanta supporters are a fiercely loyal bunch.

However, after their promotion last season to Serie A many fans feared for the team's future. There had been a change of coach and while no players had been sold - as the club president, Ivan Ruggeri, had promised - nor had the club spent much on new talent. The three new players for this season came virtually free: Massimo Paganin was no longer under contract, Maurizio Ganz came for nothing from Milan and Nicola Ventola is on loan from Internazionale.

How, wondered the tifosi, would Atalanta match the big boys and prevent their Serie A experience from being a short-lived dream?

Atalanta's superb start to the season indicates that someone, somewhere had a plan. And that plan meant capitalising on the investments of the past. The current coach, Giovanni Vavassori, who took over during the summer, used to train the youth squad and more than half the current squad have passed through the club system.

"He knows these players inside out, has helped them develop and understands their strengths and weaknesses," said Alessandro dell'Orto, a reporter who follows Atalanta for la Repubblica newspaper. "They play a zonal marking system and they know a lot of the set-piece moves off by heart," he said.

With the exception of the 36-year-old captain, Massimo Carrera, nearly all the team are in their very early twenties. Extremely fit, they also have speed in all departments of the team. The fixture list has been kind to Atalanta in the early months of the season, but worries that they would be relegation fodder have all but disappeared. Despite last weekend's goalless draw at home to Perugia, a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Bologna yesterday kept Atalanta in equal second place with Juventus behind the leaders, Roma.

The only major worry for the club and the city of Bergamo is an alleged betting scandal which is threatening to tarnish the team's reputation and jeopardise their success on the field. Three Atalanta players - Cristiano Doni, Sebastiano Sivilgia and Giacomo Banchelli - are facing an Italian league inquiry into accusations of match rigging. The allegations concern an Italian Cup match between Atalanta and Pistoiese.

The three Atalanta players, and five Pistoiese players, are accused of placing substantial bets with the Italian betting agency, SNAI, on a draw, after having agreed to work towards such a result. The trial has been fixed for early next year and could result in the players being banned.

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