Editor’s note: It’s strongly recommended that you read part one, which you can find here.
The attention gathered round him from his days in Sicily had faded, becoming almost stigmatized for leaving the league. In order to re-find his rhythm, Papu was pulled up the proverbial cliff by Atalanta in 2014, with just hours remaining in the summer transfer window. La Dea were quite basic at the time, finishing the previous season in the lower-middle of the standings. Giacomo Bonaventura’s departure for Milan weakened an already not-so-sufficient side, lacking key players in essentially every area of the pitch.
Although he had found safety in Bergamo, his return season to Italy was quite the opposite of how he left off. Just a few goals and assists by season’s end, Atalanta barely survived in the top flight – hanging just three points above relegation. Edy Reja was called to replace Stefano Colantuono late in the season, who seemed to have a better understanding of the Argentine’s abilities.
The following year was profitable for the playmaker, leading the Orobici into 2016 with seven goals and six assists. The team finished in the bottom half of the table yet again, but the progress was tangible.
Then, owner Antonio Percassi took an ambitious move by hiring the intuitive Gian Piero Gasperini. A manager known for extracting every bit of performance out of his players, he then promoted a group of youngsters into the first team. Franck Kessié, Andrea Conti, and Mattia Caldara solidified the base under Papu, giving speed and organization beyond their years. Atalanta were on their way to becoming one of the most feared teams in Italy, yet the growing pains were not over just yet. The club’s surge as one of today’s top sides in European football is very much in thanks to the tangoing feet of the Argentine playmaker.
The Nerazzurri added a freer, more rhythmic style to their game, and Gomez was choreographing all the moves. It took him about a month to get on the scoresheet – and another month until his second – playing as the left-wing forward. But then, La Dea won all six matches from the end of October through November, with Gomez sealing the three points over Genoa with a rip on the top of the 18-yard-box, and breaking the deadlock against Sassuolo after a persistent display.
He was the protagonist in another streak of wins shortly after the new year, taking vengeance on Cagliari with a sensational strike to the opposite corner to complete his brace. Gomez staked his claim in making Atalanta a force in the league, conquering even Napoli, and scoring a hattrick in a 0-5 thrashing of Genoa. He simply could not miss when bursting onto goal from the left wing.
Papu finished the season as the team’s leading goal scorer, converting a career high 16 goals. On top of that, La Dea made history in claiming the fourth spot – their highest position ever, breaking a record from 1948. More than deservedly, Gomez was handed the captain’s armband.
It’s often the case in Italian football that when a team overachieves, their best players are taken by the top of the food chain. The cycle of progress is broken, and they return to modest goals rather than fighting for silverware. Yet Atalanta’s ownership had taken steps towards financial solvency, investing in the club to run as efficiently as a Fortune 500 company.
With arguably the strongest youth team sector in the world, the club adopted a policy of selling a prized youth product every so often in order to reinvest in the first team. Such policy convinced Gomez to stay in Bergamo throughout the best years of his career, choosing the challenge over guaranteed success. He put pen to paper, signing a five year contract extension at season’s end.
It took about a year for Gasperini to develop chemistry within the squad. What became most obvious and significant was that a winner’s mentality was forming over the team. Whereas in years past it had been enough to claim a draw against the top sides, the manager now demanded nothing but a win – and a dominating win at that. They were forced to press forward – never back – and to overload the opposition in every quadrant on the pitch. Possession for possession’s sake became obsolete.
Players who were deemed strong, talented, and coachable were brought into the fray. Josip Iličič joined from Fiorentina after a mediocre period in Tuscany, where he showed glimpses of what he did at Palermo, yet was unable to fully exploit his capabilities. Young and speedy winger Timothy Castagne, joined from Genk. A relatively unknown 22-year-old named Robin Gosens came over from The Netherlands, while his countryman Marten de Roon returned after being sold to Milddlesbrough, reinforcing the centre-midfield. The club evolved, and the provincial era that Atalanta was known for throughout its history had officially ended. The age of total football had begun.
Atalanta could not achieve the same type of success they had in 2017, yet what it did offer was time to develop chemistry and fluidity in their new policies. There were a few routings, such as the 0-5 win against Hellas Verona, even making a push to the Coppa Italia semi-finals. On their day, Atalanta were as tough a challenge as any top side.
Gomez continued to pull numbers as his role adjusted to more incisive play, yet in the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Gasperini (who was now entering his third year as manager) modified Gomez’s positioning yet again. He was about to invent the false-second-striker position. It was the decisive move that propelled him as one of the finest ball-playing-attackers of his generation.
Bryan Cristante’s departure to Roma meant that Gasperini was now in need of someone who could drop deep, and break the lines to push the ball to the forwards. Judging that few on the roster had such capabilities, he turned to the 29-year-old.
“I see you in there,” Gomez recalls the manager telling him, “let’s try it.”
In the first few matches, he had trouble finding space, staying between the center-backs and the midfielders. Then, as instincts would kick in, he began to drop deep to receive passes, and start the transition.
“The first games cost me because instead of moving away from my mark, I stayed between the center-backs and the midfielders, and there wasn’t much space to receive the ball. It was very difficult. And what did I do? I threw myself back. I went onto the same line as our two wing-backs. I grab the ball in the middle (of the pitch), and there I was, always in front to start playing.”
It would be almost unfair to call him ‘just’ a trequartista, as rather than only occupying the gap between the midfielders and the attack, he found himself even as the closest player to the centre-backs. If the defensive midfielder decided to follow him, it would leave a hole behind him for his forwards to use – if not, then he created space for himself. Then when the ball made its way to their attacking third, he was there, adding as an extra forward.
Such a role though signified something intrinsic to Papu’s play though. It was a similar responsibility – and then some – that he had at the very beginning of his career at Arsenal de Sarandi. They could take the boy from Buenos Aires, but what could not be quantified were the micromovements and instinctual intelligence that made him a natural fit as the team playmaker. Gomez had invented the false-second-striker position.
A match made in Bergamesco heaven: The first two league matches were met with seven unanswered goals – not counting Gomez’s brace as part of the eight goals against Sarajevo. The positional change was glaringly obvious in the first few moments of the first match of the season, where just 13 minutes in, Gomez found open space to convert. His second goal would be exactly the coach’s orders – he dropped in the hole between the opponent’s defence, shuffling past the defensive midfielder to find plenty of space to beat the keeper’s left.
Against stronger opponents, Atalanta had a trickier time, as did Papu in finding the smallest spaces. The highs would be met with lows for the remainder of 2018, as thumpings of Parma and Inter were matched by disappointment against Empoli and Napoli. The new year was met graciously though, as Atalanta won nearly every match until mid-February, and gained points in every fixture for the remainder of the season.
Duvan Zapata became the perfect addition at the tip of the sword, with him, Gomez, and Ilicic exploiting gaps, dragging defenders, and creating enough space for Gasperini’s total football.
Beginning with Papu and Ilicic in the wide spaces, when either of them drifted inside to find space, the wing-backs would push up into forward positions. Allowing Papu to roam freely would be fatal, forcing the opposition’s defender to leave their zone and mark him. With the wing-backs in the newfound space, the centre-midfielders were required to stay wide, offering Papu offensive balance and freedom to roam. More often than not, Zapata found himself one-on-one against the centre-back.
Gomez hit stride, earning a number of incredible goals and assists On his tally was a remarkable strike from the top of the 18-yard-box, turning around the deficit against Fiorentina. The move began in Atalanta’s defensive half as he shimmied away from two defenders, before a slaloming run throughout La Viola’s entire defensive half, bypassing two more defenders before beating the keeper.
The assists piled up as Gomez found the holes to get the ball and supply the rest of his teammates. From his central position he made best use of his overlapping midfielders and diagonally-running-strikers. The unpredictable ball to change the point of attack became a signature attribute within his arsenal. A combative display against Lazio saw him gain two more assists, scoring the go-ahead-goal and outrageously dazzling assist against Sassuolo on the last matchday. It was a Papu unseen this far – strong and physical, direct yet imaginative.
One secret to Gomez’s success was the addition of Jens Bangsbo, a Danish strength and conditioning coach who worked under Carlo Ancelotti and Marcello Lippi. A disciplined training regiment made him more physical – his mass and speed was increasing tenfold at the very prime of his career.
A trio of records were broken: La Dea finished third for the first time in their existence; they scored the most goals in the league with 77; finished runners up in the Coppa Italia; and they qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever.
Atalanta became recognised as playing the best football in the country. The tactical fluidity became an unstoppable force as they took an incredible amount of shots per game, overloading the opponent in the wide areas while applying direct pressure to the backline through an ever-assaulting rush utilizing every field player. Gomez’s role as a false-second-striker continuously confounded the opposition, who simply could not keep track of him. His skillset had now manifested into the perfect blend of unpredictability, instinct, and awareness – simply put, he always found the ball.
If the previous season was about understanding Gasperini’s creative high press, 2019-20 defined the all out attack. Papu’s playmaking was matched by a squad that ruthlessly converted its opportunities, and after scoring almost 100 league goals, deserved more than a conversation among Europe’s elite.
Most remarkable from Papu’s ‘Year of the assist’ were his reverse no-look through ball to Zapata against Juventus, and a 30-yard, opposite-footed rocket to beat Parma’s Luigi Sepe. Gomez had even reached the top five players for chances created in Europe’s top five leagues. He was happy, enjoying his best football yet at 32-years-old.
Even his boss heaped praise: “Papu is very mobile and never quits. He embodies the spirit of Atalanta. He’s a true Bergamasco, an adopted Bergamasco. He has that class that allows him to play better when things get tough. He finds that right move to change the focus of the play, he’s always dangerous. Crucial for us at Atalanta.”
Gasperini’s words could not be truer when his favourite pupil went on to demolish Dinamo Zagreb. In his first career Champions League goal, he took a quick touch on the flank, pushing the ball to the corner at the top of the 18-yard-box. After passing one defender, he tapped the ball through the legs of the next, before firing across the face of goal to beat a helpless keeper. Guesting at the infamous San Siro, the Bergameschi fans went into ecstasy as their captain celebrated with them at the home of their mega-wealthy neighbors.
Before he would be named the Serie A Midfielder of the Season, the world would forever be changed. By the third page of flipping through the obituaries the reader’s heart would have sunk into their chest. If they made it to the tenth page of L’Eco di Bergamo’s March 14th copy, perhaps they would understand the severity of what was happening to their city – and later, the world.
Doctors, unfamiliar with this new virus, sent patients and their flu-like-symptoms back home. Hospitals became makeshift morgues, and churches turned into a ghastly scene of rows of coffins. The ambulance sirens and ringing from the belltower – before being stopped by a local priest – became ominous signs to the true life horror film that became Bergamo.
The match in Milan against Valencia on February 19th became known as ‘Partita Zero,’ the biological bomb that brought Covid-19 to the city. As thousands of Bergameschi piled into the train, cars, and buses to a stadium that more than doubled their capacity back home, they unknowingly spread the virus to one another within the confined spaces. Even Gasperini, who had flu-like symptoms at the time, coached the match in person. One in three players from Valencia tested positive following the match, then transmitting it to Spain. Gomez tried his best to make sense of what happened when speaking to Argentinian news:
“I believe that the situation in Bergamo today, being one of the most infected places, may have to do with the fact that it has one of the best hospitals in the Lombardy region and many people come to attend here.
“But also with the first leg (against) Valencia. There are 120,000 inhabitants here and that day 45,000 went to the San Siro.It was a historic match for Atalanta, something unique, and it was crazy. To give you an idea, my wife took three hours to get to Milan, when you are usually there in 40 minutes.”
The magnitude of the match, as magnificent as was Atalanta’s season, acted as what became dubbed a ‘super spreader’ event.
“The hospitals are full and there is no more room for the sick. The other day the military came to take the drawers with the dead and cremate them elsewhere because here there is no longer room in the cemeteries…We thought it was just another flu, a virus like those in any other winter, so we continued to lead normal lives.”
”As the rest of Italy sang at 18:00, “Bergamo had just two things: only the noises of ambulances and silence,” as Linda showed the football community through Instagram.
Their last match before international shutdown saw them progress into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Expecting a heroes’ welcome upon returning, the emptiness of the airport exposed the severity of the city’s condition.
‘Móla mía’ or ‘never give up’ became the battle cry of the heartbroken city. It seemed too cruel that when Champions League play resumed, Atalanta’s second leg against Paris St. Germain did not go according to plan. As a moment of silence was observed for the victims of the pandemic, Mario Pašalić put Atalanta in front just a half hour later. Gomez continued to pull the strings, dropping deep to help in defence while orchestrating forward movement. As time went on though, he started to grab his hamstring more and more, before finally being forced to substitute in the 59th minute. The Nerazzurri suffered wave after wave of attack, before hearts shattered with two goals at the death – the first to draw level, and the second to end their campaign which gave so much to its people.
Even though it seemed Atalanta had come up short, the remarkable season saw the players progress further than any other Italian team in the tournament, win another third place in Serie A, and score an outrageous amount of goals from every angle while playing revolutionary football. Papu’s 16 assists set the Serie A record for most assists in a single season, as there was seemingly nothing their captain could not do. Bergamo had every right to be proud of their ‘provincial’ club, at a time when they needed something to inspire hope.
Intensity has the double-edged-sword effect of falling as quickly as it rose. The energy can combust just as a supernova’s peak power would give way to a black hole. Gomez’s career in Bergamo quickly lost its valuminosity when fatigue set in from a rushed onset of the 2020-21 season.
Without a full pre-season, and exhausted from their arduous journey that ended in just mid-August, Atalanta was running on fumes. For a team that predicated its play on fitness and physicality, there was only so much to give before players started to burn out and the limited roster depth took its toll.
Papu was playing almost every minute of every match; a defensive spot that was left to be confirmed following There was Timothy Castagne’s departure; Marten de Roon, the hinge pin between midfield and defence, also picked up an injury; Ilicic’s return from a leave of absence saw a slow return to form; and Ruslan Malinovskyi’s injury left limited attacking options. They struggled to keep up throughout the congested schedule. Gasperini felt the tension as the team were failing to create as many scoring opportunities as in previous seasons, and the defence was hardly as stable.
Napoli and Sampdoria scored seven times within the span of a week against La Dea. A week later, Liverpool put five past them.
“I just want to tell you that, when I leave, you will know the truth about everything. You know me well; you know who I am. I love you, your captain.” Gomez left this ominous note on his Instagram the day after an argument following his substitution against Midtyjlland. It had been less than a week after his celestial performance that defeated Liverpool in Merseyside.
While Gasperini looked to quell any negative press, Linda also posted a vague philosophical quote on her account. Recalled for the match against Juventus, a video circulated of him singing to the Bianconeri’s anthem – an abominable action for a captain in blue and black. Clearly, something catastrophic had occurred behind closed doors. The fracture would never heal.
By the middle of the winter transfer window, lowly Genoa and Udinese forced draws to keep Atalanta away from the Champions League positions. Yet a 0-3 thumping of Milan proved that life would continue for La Dea – with or without Papu.
Peace at Last
After a career of being thrown into the fire, Papu and family made their way to Sevilla, Spain, for the last important journey of his career. At 32-years-old, he has so much left to give. Joining a side that has won the Europa League for four out of the last six seasons, he will play on a team that fights for trophies, while living in a beautiful, safe, and hospitable city. After such a tumultuous career built on hardwork and adaptation, it’s the very least that the Gomez family deserves.
Papu’s career in Italy will be remembered as a player who fought tooth and nail for his place among the greats; one who could out-dribble, then pick the pass like no other in his own, unique samba style. In most moments of his life he chose what was best for those closest around him – be it Catania, his family, or the people of Bergamo. A true leader who exemplifies the meaning of sacrifice.
“Sometimes I watch the games from before the lockdown. And I realize how much we miss it;. The stadium filled with our supporters, those full stands. So hopefully sooner or later we will get them back where they belong.” – Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez.
Words by: Wayne Girard. @wgirard10