After Celtic’s brave defeat at the San Siro, instead of returning home to Glasgow and Ireland with the thousands of other Celtic fans who had travelled over. Another member and I stayed in Italy over the weekend – despite missing our crucial tie with Aberdeen (poor foresight when booking – to visit the city of Bergamo, which is approximately one hour away from Milan, and whom many know best for the Ryanair airport which many Celts use for the all too frequent ties against the Milan sides in Europe.
However, Bergamo has more to it than simply a low-cost airport. It is a beautiful historic city located on two levels - the upper town and the lower town – as well as being home to one of the most famous teams in Italian football, Atalanta. As birthplace of the ultras movement in Europe, Italy is well known for many historic groups, the expansive curvas behind both goals in the Olimpico in Rome are home to thousands of fanatic supports known throughout Europe from the Irriducibili from Lazio and the groups that populate the Curva Sud from AS Roma. In northern Italy too, pioneers of the movement could be found in AC Milan’s Curva Sud in the Fossa Dei Leoni, as well as the groups of Viking, Drughi and fighters at Juventus. There was another group, too, that held their own at the top end of fandom in Italy, and they came from a far less sprawling city than the capital, Milan or Turin. They were the Brigate Nerazzuro (BNA) from Atalanta, who inspired their team throughout Italy and also in Europe in Atalanta’s halcyon days, and it was through interest in the BNA and the wider scene at Stadio Atleti Azzuri that inspired the two Green Brigade members to go and see for themselves what it was all about.
It is well noted throughout the world of fans that the Tessera Del Tifosi – which is like an extremely strict version of our season tickets – was a huge blow for the ultras movement in Italy. Despite this, the scene at Atalanta’s home stadium is still an impressive site, and there are now two main active groups in the Atleti Azzuri. Curva Nord Atalanta are the larger of the two, occupying the goal stand opposite the away section and in the Curva Sud stand Forever Atalanta, with whom the GB lads spent the weekend. It was through mutual friends in another Italian club – Ternana, of the Serie B – that initial contact was made with fans of Atalanta. Having visited Milan for the Inter match, the hospitality was returned when the members of Forever Atalanta agreed to allow two Celtic fans into the curva and show them about the beautiful city of Bergamo.
Arriving on the Friday afternoon after suitably recovering from the concert in Leoncavallo in Milan and the game and night which followed on the Thursday, we were greeted at the train station by a member of FA who showed us to the hostel that we’d be staying in, advising us to be ready and washed for an hour’s time so we could go to a leftist social centre in the city where we’d be eating our dinner and spending the evening. We would later be joined by friends from Dublin who were also in Bergamo for the weekend, but for the time being we were whisked away and taken to a building in a residential area of the city where left wing activists met, discussed, ate and drank together and some even stayed. After some aperitifs and introductions we were fed a fine Italian home cooked meal which set us up perfectly for the night ahead. The night was spent getting to know our hosts better by chatting about various political situations in Italy, Bergamo, Scotland, Ireland, Glasgow and Dublin as well as the things that made our fan scenes so unique and different. After many hours we called it a night and looked forward to the weekend ahead.
The Saturday was a quieter day, when we were given time to wander about the city, taking an old tram up to the Citta Alta which was located high up on the hillside overlooking Bergamo and the neighbouring countryside. Indulging in ice cream and local cafés, as well as visiting local shops and markets, it was a welcome change of pace from the hectic schedule that accompanies a European away match with Celtic. After saying our goodbyes to the lads from Dublin, we had a quick wash and change and met up again with two of the Forever Atalanta lads who bought the tickets for the next day’s match from a place which appeared to be a bookies. After the tickets were secured, more aperitifs we headed out for a quiet evening of pizza and drinks in a local left-wing bar. With our minds now being cast to the match for the next day, an early night was required and again said our goodbyes to return back to the digs.
After an early rise, we were picked up from the hotel around 10:30 in the morning in preparation for the 3pm kick off against the Sampdoria side from Genoa who were flying high in the league and were expected to travel in numbers, given that the largest group in their support – Ultras Tito – had accepted the rules of the Tessera and were permitted to travel to domestic games in Seria A. We were taken to a local bar around 100m from the stadium that was used by members of FA as a meeting point and it wasn’t even eleven o’clock yet by the time we were offered beers and even prosecco in preparation for the day ahead! After some hours drinking and chatting away, we were whisked away to another ex-BNA member’s apartment which was located directly outside the Stadium and his balcony offered views right inside the stadium. What a place! Served with a hearty two course lunch and the finest red wine Italy has to offer, we had almost forgotten about the match which lay ahead. Our forgetfulness was short-lived however as we were soon in the queue for the Curva Sud ahead of the match.
Inside the Curva we were shown around the area of Forever Atalanta, including a small stall from which they sold all their merchandising, a wide range of hats, scarves, t-shirts and stickers were available. After stocking up on gifts and souvenirs we took our place out on the terracing which closer resembles American high school bleachers than the modern plastic seats that the Scottish football fan is accustomed to. The build up to kick off was vastly different from anything I’d ever experienced before. In place of the usual tension and bustle with setting up, all of the group’s flags were already in place and friends and families stood around chatting and drinking (non-alcoholic for most) beer. It was only later on that one of our hosts explained he had an agreement in place with the vendor to provide real alcohol to him – and by extension myself. There were no drums, no megaphones and the only noise not from the mouths of the fans in the curva was from the sound of heavy boots hitting off the steel terracing in tune to the music. It was vastly more like DIY than I had anticipated, but the melodies from the 70 strong group at the front of Curva Sud were the same Italian rhythms and chants that made the scene here so famous.
The team started off as positively as the excellent support provided to them from each end of the stadium and their hard work paid off as the underdogs took a 1-0 lead going into half time. At the break the same relaxed vibe was evident again, and bar one lunatic who shouted fuck the pope and the IRA at myself and chastised the other lad for not drinking, everyone seemed keen to make our acquaintance and profess their soft spot for Celtic. The game took a turn for the worst however, as some criminal defending meant that the hosts ended up succumbing to a 2-1 defeat to a Sampdoria side hotly fancied to make a European place this season. It was a good fight from an Atalanta side flirting with relegation, but in the end the players could not reward a great atmosphere with even a point.
After the game, we had a few hours to kill before heading back to the airport, so we joined the Forever Atalanta in the nearby café for a few farewell beers and headed off to Orio Al Serio to head home to normality. The weekend left a lasting good impression inspired by the warmth and hospitality of our guests. The Stadio Atleti is a great place to visit, you cannot and would not avoid the history surrounding the stadium, and it is home to a great and vocal support who appear largely unaffected by the repressive controls imposed on football fans by the Italian government.