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McKenna: Atalanta vs. PSG: A reflection on a brutal end to a twisted Cinderella story

| Monday, August 17, 2020

In a season unlike any other, it was fitting that for four straight nights in two nearly empty stadiums in Lisbon, a unique Champions League format for a COVID-19 pandemic world gifted score lines and storylines that beggared belief.

On Thursday, RB Leipzig, a club backed by an Austrian energy-drink company you’ve definitely heard of that played in the fifth tier of German football just 11 years go, beat hardened European veterans Atlético Madrid to reach their first-ever champions-league semifinal (thanks to a first goal in 27 appearances by American midfielder Tyler Adams, no less).

On Friday, a ruthless Bayern Munich put eight (yes, eight) goals past Lionel Messi and Barcelona to hand the Blaugrana their worst loss since 1946.

Finally, on Saturday, the haters of nouveau-riche super-clubs and lovers of Financial Fair Play had reason to rejoice as Abu Dhabi’s (oops, I mean Pep Guardiola’s) Manchester City tripped up at the quarterfinal hurdle yet again against a plucky Lyon. For 89 minutes of football Wednesday night, however, it looked like the first quarterfinal was a great chapter in a twisted Cinderella story that only 2020 could produce.

Back in February, casual fans around the world were just getting introduced to Atalanta, a small club from the small city of Bergamo that had miraculously found itself in the knockout stages of the biggest club tournament of them all. For most of its history, Atalanta has fought to preserve its identity as AC and Inter Milan fought for Scudettos and European Cups 45 minutes down the road. In 2018, the club even embarked on an effort to give a free shirt to each new parent in the province, hoping to ensure that families would prevent young fans from being lured away from the “black and blues” by the two Milan giants.

Perhaps the more important decision in regards to winning the hearts of young supporters, however, was the hire of Gian Piero Gasperini, probably one of the most offensively minded managers Italy has ever seen. In a league that generally prioritizes defensive stoutness and organization, Gasperini was unafraid to implement an exciting, high-risk and fluid attacking style that belied Atalanta’s meager budget, and it quickly began paying dividends. 

After finishing fourth, seventh and third in the league in Gasperini’s first three years in charge, it soon became clear that the 2019-2020 season could be a magical one in Bergamo. In each of Atalanta’s first 10 games in the league, they managed to score at least two goals (including a 7-1 victory over Udinese). They closed the decade by producing a result unimaginable at the start of the 2010s, thumping AC Milan 5-0 at home. Their maiden Champions League campaign looked over after three successive defeats at the beginning of the group stage, but a draw against Manchester City and shutout victories over Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb in their final three games were ultimately enough to advance out of Group C. 

On Feb. 19, approximately 40,000 fans — a third of Bergamo’s population — traveled to the San Siro, usually home to the Milan clubs (Atalanta’s home ground is currently under renovation to meet standards for UEFA competition), for the biggest night in the club’s history. Bergamo had never seen its side in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, and the first leg of their round-of-16 tie against Valencia went better than anyone could have hoped. Atalanta won 4-1 that night, and their electric play had formally put Europe on notice. Unbeknownst to anyone that night, however, Bergamo would soon be the talk of the world for very different reasons. That game, the apex of a footballing fairy tale, was actually the beginning of a very real nightmare.

The first COVID-19 case in Lombardy, the region containing both Milan and Bergamo, was reported the next morning. On Feb. 23, the local hospital admitted its very first patient due to coronavirus, and soon the city was considered the epicenter of the outbreak in northern Italy. Football briefly continued behind closed doors, and Atalanta’s players held a t-shirt that read, “Bergamo, this is for you,” after they finished off the tie against Valencia in Spain, but the joy was short-lived as the death toll mounted. When relative normalcy began to resume in July, it was estimated that roughly 6,000 people in the province had succumbed to the virus. Eventually, the leading pneumologist from the hospital referred to that beautiful February night in the San Siro as a “biological bomb.” 

Soccer had unwittingly contributed to the unprecedented crisis, but in mid-June, the restart of Serie A (albeit without fans in the stands) allowed Atalanta to help the city heal. Gasperini’s men began the restart where they had left off before the pandemic — scoring at will. Atalanta found the back of the net 98 times in Serie A, the highest total by a single team in the league since the 1947-1948 season, and managed to finish in third again. It was the date with PSG in Lisbon, however, that had football fans around the world salivating. 

Financially speaking, the contrast between the Qatari-bankrolled Parisians and the Bergamese club could hardly be much sharper. Before the match, perhaps the most talked about statistic was that Atalanta’s yearly wage bill was roughly equivalent to Neymar’s annual wage. Gasperini made sure to emphasize pre-match that his team had nothing to lose, and despite being substantial underdogs, they did anything but “park the bus.”

With a swift attack in the 26th minute, Atlanta took a shock lead through a left-footed curler from Mario Pasalic, and for 64 minutes, PSG missed several chances to reply. It was meant to be. Atalanta, whose unprecedented success had inadvertently facilitated a once-in-a-generation tragedy, had earned a massive gift for their recovering city by fearlessly defeating one of the richest clubs in the world. Except they hadn’t, because three minutes later, the score at the Estadio da Luz was 2-1 PSG. In 2020, it was probably naive to think that such a poetic story might avoid such a brutal end. 

It is, of course, extremely short sighted of me to view this dramatic comeback victory as entirely depressing. As the always-eloquent commentator Peter Drury exclaimed when Marquinhos equalized for PSG, Atalanta’s devastation was simultaneously “Parisian Salvation.” Since being bought by the Emir of Qatar through Qatar Sports Investments in 2011, PSG have largely steamrolled the competition in France while — like Manchester City  — chronically underachieving in the UCL, the tournament they have been built to win.

As time ran out, manager Thomas Tuchel, who sat nursing a broken ankle, must have figured he was minutes from losing his job. Doubt must have crept into the minds of supporters and players alike as memories of recent capitulations against Barcelona in 2017 and Manchester United in 2019 resurfaced.

On Wednesday, however, it was PSG who came up with the late goals, and from unlikely sources too. First there was Marquinhos, the Brazilian center-back turned midfielder who had only scored four goals all season. Then, on a night when Neymar — the most expensive player ever — continuously fluffed his lines, it was 31-year-old substitute Eric Choupo-Moting who would play the hero. Two years earlier, Choupo-Moting only managed to score five times in 31 appearances for Stoke City as the Potters were relegated, and he has subsequently spent a large part of his two seasons in Paris on the bench. Before Wednesday, most Parisian fans probably wondered what he was even doing there in the first place. As Gary Lineker hilariously noted on Twitter Wednesday night, however, the traditional skepticism of whether a top player had the fortitude to score on a “cold, wet, Tuesday night at Stoke” had been turned upside down. 

Even from an Atalanta perspective, it is clear that Gasperini, his team and the city will not dwell too long on this loss. Despite all the horrors Bergamo has experienced over the last few months, the club have reached heights unimaginable just a few years prior. Despite their post-match disappointment, many players could not help but smile when reflecting on what they had accomplished, and the province’s relative control over COVID-19 at the moment meant the team was able to receive a hero’s welcome upon their return, a sign of victory for the city in itself.

Moreover, this footballing phenomenon in Bergamo should be far from over, and another Champions League campaign beckons. Maybe next year, Atalanta will find themselves in another Champions League quarterfinal, and this time, they might be able to play in front of their loyal fans in their very own refurbished stadium. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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