Local Heroes: Atalanta’s 1962/63 Coppa Italia triumph

In the 1960s, the Coppa Italia lacked the lustre of some equivalent competitions abroad. There was no fanfare, no music and no important dignitaries to hand over the trophy. Different formats were used and the date of the final was often switched to accommodate international and European fixtures. Across the decade, finals matches were held in April, May, June, August, September and November, and the Italian media often used these peculiarities to question the status of the event. Despite all this, players, coaches and fans still held the competition in high regard.

Since returning to the top flight in 1959, Atalanta had established themselves as a mid-table side and ended the 1962/63 campaign in eighth place under the stewardship of former player Paolo Tabanelli. They endured an early wobble in that season’s Coppa Italia campaign, needing extra-time to see off Serie B side Como in the opening round. But subsequent wins over Catania, Padova and Bari thrust them into their first ever cup final.

Remarkably, the team they fielded in the final featured nine players from Lombardy, five of whom were born and raised in Bergamo. Only Dane, Flemming Nielsen, and Argentine, Salvatore Calvanese, hailed from outside the local region.

Opponents, Torino, finished the season with the exact same number of games won, drawn and lost as their rivals, with only goal difference handing the team from Bergamo superiority in the table. This may not have been the Turin side’s first shot at a trophy – they already had six Serie A titles and two domestic cups to their name – but it was their first since the Superga air disaster had claimed the lives of the all-conquering Grande Torino team (along with coaching staff, journalists and crew) 14 years earlier. They too had battled back from a drop to Serie B to re-establish themselves as a top-flight side.

The Granata were led by former player Giacinto Ellena who had been drafted in as a temporary replacement for the recently dismissed Benjamin Santos. The club had agreed a deal to bring in Nereo Rocco (who had just won the European Cup with Milan) from the start of the following season, and in a move that drew much criticism from the Press, he was introduced to the team the day before the match. Torino’s preparations were further disrupted by their participation in a gruelling 4-3 Coppa Mitropa victory over Admira of Vienna just four days earlier.

The Italian Cup final took place on June 2, 1963, at the San Siro Stadium in Milan and it was clear from the kick off that Torino were feeling the effects of their midweek exploits. They may have had more experience at their disposal but they were physically and technically dominated by their opponents who took just three minutes to open the scoring, Angelo Domenghini heading home at the far post from Nielson’s free kick on the right.

Torino had their moments but Atalanta goalkeeper Pierluigi Pizzaballa – who had returned from the shadows a couple of months earlier when first-choice stopper Zaccaria Cometti suffered a fractured leg – was in fine form, denying Enzo Bearzot and Englishman Gerry Hitchens in the early exchanges. It was the naivety of Hitchens that prevented his team from equalizing near the half-way mark. The centre-forward was put clear through on goal by Bearzot and just had Pizzaballa to beat. But rather than shoot or attempt to go round the keeper, the former Aston Villa man opted to pass to Joaquin Peiro who missed an open goal. The Spaniard’s blushes were only partially saved by the fact he was in an offside position.

Atalanta doubled their lead early in the second half when Luciano Magistrelli latched on to a Calvanese flick and lifted the ball over the head of Bearzot into the path of the onrushing Domenghini. The youngster fired the ball home to further demoralise the flagging opposition.

Calvanese should have put the game out of Torino’s reach in the 67th minute after intercepting a pass between Luciano Buzzacchera and Fabrizio Poletti. But, under pressure from the incoming Torino keeper Lido Vieri, the Argentine midfielder fluffed his lines.

Minutes later, Hitchens looked certain to reduce the deficit as Bearzot, now playing a more advanced role, headed the ball in his direction. The striker struck the ball perfectly on the volley but was thwarted by an incredible reaction save from Pizzaballa.

With 10 minutes left to play, Mario Mereghetti pushed to ball out wide to Domenghini who was loitering on the right touchline. The Nerazzurri striker coaxed the ball to the edge of the area, cut inside Buzzacchera and unleashed a shot that Vieri could only parry back into the youngster’s path. A little shimmy caused the keeper to land on his backside allowing Domenghini to complete his hat-trick as a tired Roberto Rosato made a half-hearted attempt to close him down.


Angelo Domenghini leaves Lido Vieri and Luciano Buzzacchera on the floor as he completes his hat-trick

A late consolation goal from Giorgio Ferrini did little to change the dynamic of the game as La Dea held on comfortably for the win. There was warm applause from both sets of fans as the chiefly home-grown team paraded their first ever piece of major silverware.

Atalanta had restricted their opponents to just three shots on goal and gained plenty of new admirers with their style of play. But most of all they had finally reaped the rewards of a youth system put in place by Giuseppe Ciatto nearly two decades earlier. Domenghini, Pizzaballa, Piero Gardoni, Alfredo Pesenti and Franco Nodari were all born in Bergamo and had emerged through the club’s youth academy.

Since 1963, the star names have continued to roll off the club’s production line. Gaetano Scirea, Antonio Cabrini, Roberto Donadoni, Alessio Tacchinardi, Riccardo Montolivo and Giampaolo Pazzini are just a few of the household names whose talent was forged in Bergamo. More recently, the careers of Giacomo Bonaventura, Manolo Gabbiadini, Daniele Baselli, Franck Kessié, Andrea Conti and Roberto Gagliardini were launched on the training fields of the Zingonia-based academy.

But while the club continues to get plaudits for their ability to nurture top talent, the lack of further silverware has been notable – although they did finish as runners-up in the same competition in 1986/87 and 1995/96.

This season, that dream of silverware is within touching distance again. Under the guidance of Coach Gian Piero Gasperini, the Bergamo club have provided one of the great stories of the 2018/19 campaign, reaching the Coppa Italia final and competing for a place in next season’s Champions League. All this, despite the regular exodus of their top players.

The starting XI at the Stadio Olimpico on May 15 may not be as bulging with home-grown talent, but the local spirit that still prevails at the club will be well and truly on display.

Words by Neil Morris