In their 108 year history, Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio have only won one trophy of note, the Coppa Italia. Still, La Dea’s youth ranks have produced some stellar players over the years and this achievement merits an in-depth look at the best Atalanta descendants.
Life needs pioneers, figures who burst onto the scene and set the tone for future generations. In the case of Atalanta’s youth ranks, their pioneer is Angelo Domenghini. One of nine children, Domenghini was born in Lallio, a 15 minute drive from Bergamo. He was a grassroots talent, as they say. He used to envy the bike his big brother Marcello had and was pretty lawless at an early age, his family being very poor at the time.
To escape his father’s rules, Domenghini picked up Calcio. He was discovered by a priest, Don Antonio, at a tournament in Verdello and joined La Dea. Domenghini was deployed as a striker or winger during his youth days and would go on to play the same positions as a professional, which he became in 1960. At first, he worked at a local factory in the morning while going to practice with Atalanta in the afternoon. But this didn’t last long, as La Dea told the then 50 pound Domenghini to focus on his career as a footballer.
He led Atalanta to the Coppa Italia in 1963, scoring all three goals in a 3-1 final victory against Torino. His heroics instantly earned him legend status. He left his hometown in 1964 to join Helenio Herrera’s ‘Grande Inter’, signing a blank contract for a team said to be ‘touched by the hand of God’.
It was money well spent. Domenghini dominated the right wing and was known for his speedy moves in one-on-one situations. The Atalanta talent won two Scudetti and one European Cup with the Nerazzurri, but his greatest achievement came during the 1969-70 season. Domenghini had joined Gigi Riva and Sergio Gori at Cagliari, and led the team to their first and only Serie A title. Meanwhile, he scored for Italy during their victorious 1968 European Championship finals and took part during the Azzurri’s losing effort in the 1970 World Cup finals.
Angelo Domenghini started with nothing but won (almost) everything.
A world class duo
When we think about Gaetano Scirea, only one team comes to mind: Juventus. The legendary sweeper spent 14 seasons with the Bianconeri and became one of only five players to have won every single club trophy organised by FIFA and UEFA, as well as the World Cup. Scirea was crucial to the Azzurri’s 1982 World Cup triumph in Spain, when they beat powerhouses Argentina, Brazil and West-Germany. He even assisted Marco Tardelli’s goal during the finals, a player he would have to calm down in his hotel room during the nights preceding games.
But few remember that Scirea progressed through the youth ranks at Atalanta, subsequently making his Serie A debut for La Dea in 1972 under the guidance of Giulio Corsini. Initially, Scirea played as a central midfielder, showcasing his passing ability and offensive drive. After two seasons and 58 games at Atalanta and shifting to the sweeper position, Scirea left for Juve and the rest is history.
He revolutionised his position, using his unparalleled vision, positional play and subtlety to defend the best attacking lines. He was the game’s ultimate reader, consequently never receiving a red card during his illustrious career. Scirea was the opposite of the stereotypical physical Italian defender, like his teammate Claudio Gentile. Scirea played with ‘the sound of silence’, wrote journalist Darwin Pastorin, who also called the Juve defender a ‘gentleman sweeper’.
Known as a man of little words, it was Scirea who stepped up to speak to the fans during the Heysel tragedy in 1985 and then made sure Juve won their first European Cup. “He spoke little, and yet he had charisma”, Bianconeri legend and former president Giampiero Boneperti (who brought Scirea to Turin) said.
A quiet man, raised as a football player in Bergamo, turned out to be a fine piece of art. His sudden death in 1989 during a car crash came way too soon.
Like Scirea, Roberto Donadoni isn’t famous for his time at Atalanta. The right-winger made his name at AC Milan, when the Rossoneri ruled football during the late 1980s and early 90s. But Donadoni paved his way to Serie A in La Dea’s youth ranks, winning the youth championship in 1982, before making his senior debut in Serie B. Two years later, Donadoni was a key player in the team that propelled the Nerazzurri back to Serie A.
Donadoni made his mark as a complete midfielder, mostly used on the right wing. He was known for his bursts of speed, superb technique, excellent crosses, never-ending drive and timeless feints. In many ways, Donadoni followed in the footsteps of Domenghini. He spent four seasons in Bergamo, until he was sold to Milan in 1986. He was one of Silvio Berlusconi’s first transfers when the media tycoon took over the Rossoneri. He would be Milan’s ultimate wingman for the next decade, winning nearly every trophy out there.
Meanwhile, Donadoni reached the semi-finals at the 1988 European Championships and 1990 World Cup and played during the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil. He left Milan in 1996 for MLS, joining the newly founded New York MetroStars (today known as the Red Bulls) becoming a true pioneer in this regard.
French midfield legend Michel Platini called Donadoni “Italy’s best player of the 1990s”.
The warrior generation
The next generation of Atalanta descendants may not have reached the heights of those before them, but they have still forged successful careers.
It’s never easy to be the next in line when examples have been set by a couple of legends. Just ask Riccardo Montolivo. The midfielder was once seen as the heir to Andrea Pirlo at Milan and the next great La Dea youth product. Montolivo made his senior debut with Atalanta in 2003, when they were in Serie B. Two years later, he was sold to Fiorentina and went on to play for the Rossoneri. His talent as a playmaker was clear, but Montolivo has never reached his true potential and has become a warrior instead of a genius.
The warrior mentality of the Atalanta youth academy that has helped Montolivo, is also reflected in two other players. The first is Alessio Tacchinardi. He made his debut with La Dea in 1993, before joining Juventus. Tacchinardi partnered the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Pavel Nedved in midfield thanks to his determination, fighting spirit and dependability.
The second is Giampaolo Pazzini, who has had a similar career as Montolivo. After making his senior debut with Atalanta in 2003, he joined Fiorentina in 2005 and ended up with Milan in 2012. Filippo Inzaghi even dubbed Pazzini his heir, expectations the striker has never fulfilled. But no one has ever been able to say Pazzini didn’t fight for a long ball, cross or aerial duel. That’s how he’s scored most of his goals: by fighting for every inch.
It’s never easy to predict the future. But it’s almost certain that there will be more talented Atalanta youngsters to discuss. For example, Manolo Gabbiadini has made his mark for the Italy U-21 squad, Sampdoria and Napoli, after he made his Serie A debut for Atalanta in 2009. Then there is Giacomo Bonaventura, who joined the Atalanta youth ranks in 2006 and is currently making an impact at Milan.
In addition, there are players like Simone Zaza and Daniele Baselli. Zaza has already featured for the Azzurri and made the big leap from Atalanta in 2009, to Juventus in 2015. Baselli on the other hand spent his youth career at La Dea and made his Serie A debut with the team in 2013. His recent move to Torino has seen him impress further, and his creativity has helped the youngster grab the attention of Azzurri Coach Antonio Conte.
Should Atalanta keep producing warriors with the talent to match, there’s no end in sight for their youth academy.