Atalanta’s Death at the Last sees Modern Football Rip one from us Again
Everyone loves the underdog, well most people do. The underdog is the one that doesn’t have much going for it; it’s not blessed with the most lush of resources or the most glamorous or PR-effective personnel; or in the case of football, it’s not pumped with hyper-capitalist money aimed at making the rich richer for just being rich. So, public opinion and support from neutrals are what oil its machine.
And what’s better than an underdog? Well, an underdog that doesn’t pull its punches, that’s what. One who doesn’t cower and rely on luck against the bigger foe, but earns a right to even be seen favourites. The David that doesn’t knock down Goliath with a sling, but actually throws him punches from up close and gets him in a chokehold.
For a while, that’s been Atalanta. The Bergamo-based Italian side have been the catching the eye since 2017, and three years on, they’re almost certainly the favourite of football neutrals (much more likeable on and off the pitch than Leeds, and more fun than Bilbao). Over the past three seasons – including this soon-to-be concluded long-fest that’s 2019/20 – Atalanta have comfortably finished in the top four in Italy, shown up Italian champions Juventus, won at the (admittedly empty) Mestalla, gone toe-to-toe with Borussia Dortmund, and thumped five past AC Milan.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s side are definitely the loveable underdog, not the kind that’s built on solidity and a willingness to suffer to win games, but the kind that have a kind of happy-go-lucky attacking style, that have scored 98 goals in the just-concluded Serie A, and managed successive top-four finishes, with a significantly smaller wage bill than most teams that finish in the top four of Europe’s top-five leagues. Omar Little, The Athletic’s James Horncastle called them.
And this season, the Italians, after a torrid start, managed to find their way to the quarter-final of the Champions League. Standing in their way was Paris St. Germain, the literal epitome of modern football; an actual sporting Goliath, a side with a wage bill almost six times that of Atalanta. This was the game in which there would be no prizes for guessing whom the neutrals would be rooting to win. And for most of this game, Atalanta were winning. For most of this game, Atalanta had won.
They had taken a deserved lead inside the first half-hour of the game, and for much of the rest of it, they looked relatively untroubled, despite being on the back foot. They were up against a team that had the most expensive player in the world, with a net budget of the past decade that would eclipse that of some actual countries. It looked like something special was in store. ‘…we did everything that we were looking to do, going toe-to-toe with them. It is hard to do more than that’, said Gasperini afterwards.
It’s important not to oversell the significance of football in society; the city of Bergamo has been one of the most hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, and Atalanta going all the way in the Champions League wasn’t going to make up for that (nor was them losing out going to mean they let the city down). But it was definitely going to be something worthwhile, and it’s not that outrageous to say that football needed Atalanta to complete the fairy-tale.
But, nope, not happening. In the space of four minutes – deep into this quarter-final in Lisbon – Atalanta went from the cusp of something remarkable to complete heartbreak, and the hearts of many footballing neutrals and purists were shattered as well. It felt like the end of something. Not just Atalanta’s memorable journey, but the end of modern football’s last underdog chance. The end of football’s (club football’s) last chance to provide us with utterly pleasant unpredictability.
We’ve been here before. Over a year ago, Ajax’s players collapsed at the Johan Cruyff Arena, as they fell to Spurs in the semi-final of last season’s comeback-laden tournament, in a dramatic end to another underdog story. But this year was somehow meant to be different; the games were single-legged, which meant little margin for error, little room for resurrection. No second chance to put things right.
Yet, PSG find one. Somehow, the behemoth found a way to run through the underdog, despite looking toothless for much of the encounter. The death-like format was meant to aid the small fry, and meant to tell the little man that he just had to get it right once. Yet, in a death-like format, you can hardly afford to get it wrong once. Atalanta got it right for most of the game, yet when the nerves set in, and the prospect of killing a giant got even realer, they found it taken from them. The legs had gone from a team that had played 13 games in the past two months, and soon after, the dream followed.
As PSG’s players piled on each other, and Atalanta’s sunk in desolation, modern football had well and truly done it. As the Champions League continues to limp towards becoming football’s equivalent of a cool kids table, this seemed like the final chance for a memorable story. And, despite last year’s Amsterdam collapse, the human tendency for hope still believed that it could happen.
Hope can sometimes mean learning nothing through failure, and choosing to believe even when everything tells you not to. Once again, we are left to watch – excluding a likely-to-eliminated Lyon (who rose to prominence as a rich behemoth) and a rich RB Leipzig – the members of modern football’s Empire duke it with each other.
Kunle Ajao121 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not