Atalanta are named after a character in Greek mythology whose likeness is depicted in the distinctive club badge. The Swiss students who formed the ‘Società di Ginnastica e Sports Atletici Atalanta’ in the early 20th century were devoted to Futurism, an artistic movement that emphasised the dynamism, speed, energy and vitality of modern life. For the symbol of their club they chose Atalanta, a virgin huntress who could run faster than any other human. Initially the club colours were black and white, but following a 1919 merger between two local sides, they were changed to blue and black to combine the shirts of the two original clubs.
Picture an idyllic town in Lombardy and perhaps you imagine the mazy chaos of medieval streets on a hilltop. Majestic palazzos, churches and piazzas that never look quite as good in holiday snaps. A sandstone Venetian wall marking the old city limits, with a lush green curtain of mountains in the background. And a long-haired Swedish footballer roaming the streets, revered by locals like a Nordic god. Well, maybe not the last part. But beyond the classic tropes of the travel brochures is a Lombardy full of surprises.
A living, breathing Lombardy, a modern-day Lombardy crazy for calcio. And right at its centre, 50km northeast of Milan, resplendent at the foot of the Alps, is Bergamo. Welcome to the home of Atalanta. Welcome to the newest Italian town on the Champions League map. Welcome, in other words, to the fiefdom of Glenn Strömberg. “I was born in Sweden, but I’ll die Bergamasco,” says the charismatic former club captain, a cult hero for Atalanta fans since his 1980s heyday.
His striking blond locks are a lot shorter now and tinged with grey, but Strömberg still lives in Bergamo, the 59-year-old having forged a lifetime bond with the place and its people. And that, along with his current role as a television pundit, has given him a perfect vantage point to see a new set of idols emerge to compete for local affections. These, after all, are exciting times for Atalanta. The Nerazzurri left Inter, AC Milan, Roma and Lazio in their wake last season to finish third in Serie A – their highest ever position securing a historic first ticket to the Champions League. The club named after a virgin huntress from Greek mythology will now start the group stage as competition virgins, but make no mistake: this is a team with a rich background of highs and lows, of proud European exploits and beloved crowd favourites.
Strömberg’s own route to legendary status was marked by hard work, loyalty and leadership. Rewind to 1984 and the Atalanta he joined were a vastly different team to today, the European Cup a distant, seemingly impossible fantasy. Newly promoted back to Serie A, just two years after a stint in Serie C, their primary goal was top-flight survival. In fact, the side founded in 1907 had fewer major trophies than their 24-year-old new signing, their 1962/63 Coppa Italia win the highlight of a yo-yo existence.
In contrast, Strömberg showed up in town with more than just a tall frame and the haircut of a lion, having been among the youngest members of the IFK Göteborg team that stunned Hamburg in the 1982 UEFA Cup final. Transformed from a gifted but tactically undisciplined tyro into a modern box-to-box midfielder by the Swedish upstarts’ coach Sven-Göran Eriksson, he followed his mentor to Benfica the next year, snaffling two Portuguese titles and reaching another UEFA Cup final.
That early grounding in silverware and success was not ideal preparation for Atalanta – at least, not 35 years ago. “The first few months were shocking for me,” Strömberg recalls, the days when Nerazzurri fans would grow their hair long in admiration still some way off. “I had to adapt to a different style of play, much more tactical and defensive. With Göteborg and Benfica, I played to win; with Atalanta, I played to avoid defeat.”
Still, he had known the less glamorous side of the game too, and the reality of life at a smaller club. Göteborg may have taken the continent by surprise, but it had pushed them to their limit, if not beyond. “It’s incredible we had such a successful season despite all our financial problems,” says Strömberg. “The club was almost broke, and the fans paid for the cost of our journey to Valencia in the quarter-finals.”
Three years into his time at Atalanta, Strömberg had a very different interaction with supporters – but it was that moment that secured his place in club lore. Although his performances had improved, helping him win the Swedish player of the year award in 1985, the Nerazzurri could not save themselves from relegation in 1986/87, and the mood among the fanbase darkened.
It was a turning point. Several big clubs hovered, eager for the Swede’s signature, but Strömberg opted to stay. “I felt my share of the responsibility, and I wanted to sort it out,” he recalls, having also clicked with Atalanta’s young new coach Emiliano Mondonico, a fellow rebel at heart with a shared passion for The Rolling Stones. Mondonico made Strömberg his captain, and the man with the armband showed his hunger with two goals in a pre-season friendly at the club’s Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. Not everyone was impressed, however.
“Wake up, Marisa!” came a cry from the stands. For Strömberg, this was too much. Fans of opposing teams had long called him Marisa, mocking his extravagant golden mane by giving him a female nickname, but he had never heard it from his own team’s supporters. His response was emphatic, a quick leap over the security fencing and a rush into the crowd bringing him face to face with his heckler. “My name is Glenn, Glenn Strömberg,” he bellowed. “Captain of Sweden and Atalanta. Don’t you ever forget it. You or anyone else.”