Little Italy, Little Merthyr - by Mavis
The football fans bucket list. Let’s be honest, we all have one. Whether it’s Dortmund’s yellow wall, the El Classico or even somewhere a little more random that may not have much significance to many others like the Sarajevo derby for example (which is one of mine). I’ve made my list and I managed to tick one significant box in January by re-tracing the steps of our greatest ever team. Destination Bergamo.
As some of you may know, I have a deep rooted interest in our European escapades and why not? It’s our history that can help our Club sustain a future fan base in generations to come so it’s certainly worth exploring it to the maximum. A visit was one way to satisfy my footballing needs and a huge tick off my bucket list.
The journey to Bergamo all started many Months before with a Facebook conversation with the biggest Merthyr fan in Italy, Roberto Gionchillie. Rob is a phenomenally helpful guy and he casually mentioned to me that he works for Atalanta B.C., of which I did not know at the time. There was a light bulb flashing above my head by this point. Maybe we can establish a firm contact and an affiliation with the Club that we embarrassed 30 years ago? Maybe they have forgotten who we are anyway?
Romano Zanforlin, was the name that was passed onto me. Romano is the Marketing Director at Atalanta, a job that must be incredibly challenging, especially with the global super brands of Inter & AC Milan located under an hour away. Romano on the other hand was surprisingly aware of us, purely on the basis of the replica shirts that we have been sending to Bergamo. Over 100 hundred have been delivered to Italy alone which is quite remarkable for a 3rd shirt. Would there be a little Merthyr out in Italy?
Myself and Anthony arrived at a chilly Bergamo with plenty of time to explore this beautiful City. To keep up with nostalgia, we checked into The Excelsior hotel, the same as our legendry squad. Whilst I was walking through the corridors, I couldn’t help thinking about which room Ceri Williams was occupying and whether they have managed to repair any damages 30 years on.
Bergamo truly is a wonderful City, a hidden gem tucked away in Northern Italy whilst the vast majority of tourists head to nearby Milan instead. Not that it’s a problem, Bergamo feels much more authentic and ticks nearly every single Italian stereotype box you can imagine. The old city that looks down on the new city is quite frankly stunning. We sat outside a café, drinking coffee with classical Italian music blaring and echoing around the tight winding streets on top of the hill. The beer was good as well as we watched AC Milan lose yet another game at the San Siro in a nearby café.
The following day I was notified that Romano would be giving me a call to arrange a meet a few hours before the game against Sampdoria. His English was quite impressive compared to some of the other locals which was incredibly helpful. My Italian language skills go as far as naming variations of pasta. So we arrived at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia after a short walk from the City centre.
I’ve seen countless hours of footage of this stadium on my computer screen and to finally be there was quite a humbling yet odd experience. Anthony recognised the old court yard that was used to keep our fans at bay and I couldn’t but notice how much the stadium hadn’t really changed that much in 3 decades.
Just to the left of the away section was the main grandstand. An epic yet glamorous looking structure which in some sense looked a little out of place, especially when the Curva Nord behind the goal is in full swing (More on that in a bit). By the main entrance we heard a “Matthew!” in a thick Italian accent as Romano approached us both as though we had been good friends for a long time. A promising start. For the next 45 minutes we were treated to a tour of the Stadium, met some of the Club’s delegates and got to walk on the hallowed turf that a Merthyr team once graced. Quite bonkers when you think about it. To my surprise Romano and his staff were well aware of our meeting in Europe and of the #AtalantaWeekend campaign we had on social media last September which also involved a number of Atalanta supporters who swapped scarfs and bought our merchandise. After a few snaps on the subs benches with our Forza Martyrs scarfs, we left Romano’s company as kick off was not too far away. Match days are busy at any level of the game.
I am incredibly jealous of football fans on the Continent. The atmosphere is on another level to what we experience in Britain. In fact the atmosphere at a Premier League match is more reminiscent of a Shakespeare play compared to the Atalanta ultras. There’s obviously a police presence but there seems to be mutual understanding when it comes to pyro’s and smoke bombs. As long as they are thrown into the front concourse behind the goal then there isn’t a problem. You can’t take a bottle top into The Emirates these days.
Atalanta are quite frankly flying in Serie A at the moment. A club that heavily relies on its Academy structure are fighting for a place in a European competition against some of the biggest names in Italy. An astonishing achievement already. The Goddess (As they are also known) had to battle against a resilient Sampdoria team but it was a penalty for our friends that was the difference on a bitterly cold night in Bergamo. I think I spent half of my time hypnotised by the Curva Nord and the ultras as they let off the odd bomb now and again. They also found some time to ignite a small bonfire in the stand by using the left over programmes. Can you imagine that in the UK?
Before our journey back to the Mother land, I sent Romano a text, thanking him for his hospitality and for the opportunity to establish a contact with them. We received a kind reply and we both certainly intend to keep in touch. I’ll always be jealous of the Merthyr fans that made the trip to Bergamo 30 years ago, there’s not a lot I can do about that as I was only 5 Months old but to have now experienced a glimpse that atmosphere, it certainly motivates to take ideas to the next level. Another film or something?