Back in the 1990s, Italian soccer was formed by the “seven sisters” that included Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Lazio, AS Roma, Parma and Fiorentina. These clubs won everything in Italy and outside the country during those years in what was a dominant run. Parma and Fiorentina had some issues in the past twenty years, and there are two new big clubs that need to be mentioned nowadays when we speak about Serie A (watch live on Paramount+). Obviously there is Napoli, who look set to win their first Scudetto in 33 years. Then there is Atalanta, the small club from Bergamo that has caused nightmares in the Champions League and produced such high-octane attacks to become must-see TV. And while they didn’t have a history of winning trophies and didn’t aspire to become one of the giants of European soccer, former club player and Italian businessman Antonio Percassi decided to buy the club back in 2010 and the fortunes changed for the better, and lately it’s been with big American influence.
From that moment on everything changed for the team based in the north of Italy and just a one-hour drive from Milan. Atalanta started from zero and struggled for some years until current manager Gian Piero Gasperini was appointed in 2016. The former Genoa coach created one of the most interesting projects of Italian soccer, based on young players from the academy and great scouting by the club directors during the past years. It worked so well that Atalanta reached the Champions League soccer three times in recent years, including when they lost to Paris Saint Germain in the quarterfinals of the 2019-20 edition. Atalanta even had three straight third-place finishes in the league before last season and scored a staggering 98 league goals in the 2019-20 season. That season they averaged 2.57 goals per league game, and for context, this season the incredible Napoli said are average 2.3.
This incredible growth was noticed by many outside the country as well and in February 2022 American businessman and Boston Celtics co-owner StevphenPagliuca acquired a 55% stake in the club alongside other investors. Pagliuca was named co-chairman of the club and spoke exclusively with CBS Sports about his first year there.
“The Percassi family is a big reason why we got interested in Atalanta,” he told Matteo Bonetti. “We met them through a partner of mine in Italy, Luca Bassi, and really hit it off and they were looking to really build the team and build a global brand, and we’ve done that here with the Celtics. And I have Italian heritage. My grandfather and grandmother came from Muro Lucano near Avellino. It was funny, as soon as I got off the plane, I felt very at home in Bergamo. The people are incredible and the whole town lives for the football team.”
One of the secrets behind the success of Atalanta is definitely the youth sector. Since Percassi took charge of the club, the academy was always at the center of the project and some of the best players started their careers there — Inter Milan defender Alessandro Bastoni, FC Barcelona’s Franck Kessie, Tottenham winger Dejan Kulusevski and Manchester United’s Amad Diallo, just to name few of them.
“The key to Atalanta has been the fantastic job that the Percassis have done with their academy,” Pagliuca said. “There are over 400 boys in the academy from six to 16 and they have many guys on the national team. So for a smaller city like that, the academy is absolutely critical, investing in that. That’s been a fantastic asset. And then they’ve had a great scouting department globally and you’ve seen players like Rasmus Højlund, Ademola Lookman that we brought in. So, we think we can compete with anybody and we’ll create a flywheel of success and bring in more sponsors and we’re actually renovating the stadium. We’ve done one end already, putting in luxury boxes. So a whole bunch of things can be done to lift it to the premier level, but it’s a fantastic team and a fantastic city.”
Højlund and Lookman are the most surprising additions from the last summer. The 20-year-old Danish striker arrived from Sturm Graz for €25 million and impressed many, scoring seven goals in 22 games. Lookman joined Atalanta from RB Leipzig for €15 million and scored 14 goals in 25 games in all competitions with his new team.
“Lookman’s very bright and very driven,” Pagliuca said. ” I was at [a recent practice], probably six o’clock at night and everybody else shuffled in the locker room and Lookman was still out there. It was getting dark, it was cold and he was practicing penalty kicks, so he’s a hard worker. Højlund is as well and Højlund is just a physical specimen. When I met him in Sturm Graz, I was surprised he was 19 because he was more filled out than even the NBA players we have here. He’s six-foot-four, blazing fast, left-footed and our scouting staff did a great job to identify him and we really wanted him to come.”
Funny enough, Højlund’s mom is also a big Celtics fan, and Pagliuca saw that as an opportunity to sweeten their recruitment of her son.
“I came with Luca (Percassi’s son) and Lee (Congerton, head of senior recruitment) and by happenstance when we sat down, his mother was talking about her background and she’d been a great soccer player as well, football player. And it turns out that she played here in Nashville, New Hampshire, and had lots of friends and the Celtics were doing great in those days,” Pagliuca said. “And so we had part of the package. We’ve offered them a trip to court-side Celtics [seats] as soon as the season is over.”
Atalanta return to the pitch on Friday against Empoli at 3:45 p.m. ET live on Paramount+.
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Publish Date:2023-03-14 03:20:45