Ask an Atalanta fan about playing in the ChampionsLeague and they’ll say that it has always seemed like an impossible dream. Too big a competition for our team that, despite a long and proud history, has limited financial resources. Yet our football horizon changed suddenly last May: by beating Sassuolo in the last game of the season, Atalanta ensured a place in this season’s edition.
I was there. Happy, moved – and above all, incredulous. From there, a countdown clock started running in my mind. To the draw, first. I desperately wanted Atalanta to play in one of the most evocative European stadiums, at Anfield or Camp Nou perhaps. I was disappointed when it didn’t happen, but at the same time quietly confident that we could get third place in our group and move on to the last 32 of the Europa League. This was my hope.
Half an hour into our debut in the competition, the dream of an entire city had already turned into a nightmare. Not only had we had a troubled journey to reach Zagreb (with several supporters’ coaches breaking down, long queues on the motorway, never ending checks at customs), but Atalanta were already three goals down to Dinamo. I was angry with myself for my unrealistic expectations.
The first home game, at San Siro, brought me back to my childhood. When I was 12 years old my father, who is dead now, took me there for the very first time. I was intimidated by the immensity of the stadium. Climbing the many steps this time, I was aware that I wasn’t a little boy anymore. And after seeing another defeat, there was even less to dream about than before.
The journey to Manchester was the best – and the afternoon pub crawl a highlight. We had absolutely no expectations for the match, just wanting to enjoy the moment. And we did, despite the 5-1 defeat (and even if we were a little surprised by the lack of atmosphere in the stadium). After three defeats in a row, 11 goals conceded, my only wish now was not to finish the group with no points.
It was a big relief, therefore, when we drew at home against City on matchday four. Twitter can hurt you if you read all the nasty comments on your team struggling in the biggest competition. Yet with our subsequent win against Dinamo Zagreb, we had not just a sense of payback for those earlier embarrassments but also a eureka moment: out of the blue we realised that Atalanta still had a chance, however small, of staying in Europe.
For weeks I hadn’t even looked at the Group C table. Now I started every day with calculations, predictions and possible scenarios. The charter flight to Kharkiv had been arranged when the game against Shakhtar looked like a dead rubber. Only supporters like me, who follow Atalanta everywhere, had bought those tickets. Now, for once, we would be rewarded with the most memorable of nights. At the end, after our 3-0 triumph, I cried – not just for joy but because of the tension and the tiredness.
Later that night, we met the team. It was 1am in Kharkiv airport and there was no one but us and Gian Piero Gasperini’s players. Pandemonium erupted. The group stage has been a rollercoaster of extreme and unforgettable emotions: from surprise to delusion, from hope to trepidation, from humiliation to redemption. I got home at 7am and ran into my son’s room. I woke him up and gave him a hug. And then I told him quite a tale.