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Posts Tagged ‘Cup Winners’ Cup’

Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio, based in the northern city of Bergamo, were founded in 1907 and officially recognised by the FIGC (Italian Football Federation) seven years later. They are nicknamed La Dea (“The Goddess”) or the Nerazzurri (“black-blues,” relating to their colours), and are often called the “Regina delle provinciali” (“Queen of the provincial clubs”) as they’ve historically been one of Italy’s most successful non-metropolitan sides.

Atalanta currently back in Serie A after winning last season’s Serie B championship. They’ve made a great start to the season, having only lost twice in their opening 11 fixtures, and would currently be 5th if they hadn’t started the season on -6 points. Embroiled in a betting scandal last season, La Dea have rallied through adversity and are in good stead for a midtable finish.

As documented yesterday, Atalanta have been in and out of Serie A more times than most teams. In recent times they’ve struggled to hold down a top-tier place for any longer than a couple of seasons at a time. European forays and a 1963 Coppa Italia win make Atalanta more famous than most of their provincial counterparts, and they’ve only played a single season outside of Italian football’s top two tiers since Serie A’s 1929 inception.

A football club existed in Bergamo three years prior to Atalanta B.C.’s birth. F.C. Bergamo were founded by wealthy Swiss immigrants in 1904. Atalanta emerged as a splinter of FC Bergamo after a difference in sporting ideologies between members, and, while the Nereazzurri have prospered, Bergamo faded into obscurity.

Named after a mythological Greek athlete and huntress, Atalanta merged with another local club, Bergamasca, to create the club of today. Originally competing in Bergamo’s local league, Atalanta progressed to the larger Lombardy league system and won the First Division championship to secure participation in the 1928-29 national championship.

Poor performances that season meant Atalanta were placed in Serie B’s inaugural 1929-30 season. It took seven seasons before they achieved Serie A promotion, but coach Ottavio Barbieri, a former Genoa winger, achieved that feat in 1937.

La Dea have floated between Serie A & Serie B ever since, with their longest period of top tier competition spanning 15 years from starting in 1940-1955. Several club legends emerged during this period, including Giuseppe Casari and James Mari, the first Atalanta players to ever represent the Italian national team (despite the latter’s Brentford upbringing). Another Englishman, Adrian Bassett, spearheaded La Dea’s frontline during the later years of this period, scoring 57 times in 125 appearances.

Giuseppe Casari made over 170 appearances for Atalanta in the forties.

Atalanta made their competitive European debut in 1963, when, on September 4th, they defeated Sporting Lisbon 2-0 in the Cup Winners’ Cup. They’d also compete in other now-defunct competitions like the Coppa delle Alpi in the early years but achieved no notable success.

The 1970’s were barren for Atalanta but the ‘80’s proved much more productive. Relegated to Serie C1 for the first time in history, La Dea galvanised and were back in Serie A just three years later. They reached their second Coppa Italia final in 1987 (having won the competition in 1963), but suffered a 4-0 aggregate loss to a Diego Maradona-inspired Napoli.

The following season, 1987-88, is considered the club’s most successful. The Emiliano Mondonico-managed side achieved promotion with a 4th-place Serie B finish, but the real fun came in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Atalanta battled to the semi-finals, their greatest ever European accomplishment, beating Sporting Lisbon, Ofi Crete and Merthyr Tydfil along the way. La Dea suffered a 4-2 aggregate loss to Belgian side Mechelen, but reaching the semi-finals was a huge achievement for such a second tier side.

Atalanta qualified for the 1989-90 and 90-91 UEFA Cups thanks to consecutive top seven Serie A finishes. Eliminated at the first hurdle by Spartak Moscow in 1990, La Dea were considerably more successful the following season. Having already eliminated Dinamo Zagreb, Fenerbahce and FC Koln, Atalanta met Italy’s other Nerazzurri, Internazionale, in the quarter-finals. Holding Inter to a goalless draw in the first leg, Atalanta were defeated 2-0in the return fixture at the Giuseppe Meazza.

No further European escapades followed, but Atalanta reached a third Coppa Italia final in 1996 (they were unsuccessful, losing 3-0 to Fiorentina on aggregate). 1996-97 saw the emergence of future poaching legend Pippo Inzaghi, whose 24 goals made him Atalanta’s first-ever Serie A top scorer. Inzaghi highlighted the growing efficiency of Atalanta’s youth academy, which was headed by current Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli from 1990-93 and 94-97.

The following seasons were devoid of interesting events, barring the standard relegation and promotion here and there. Attacking midfielder Cristiano Doni became a talismanic figure during two lengthy spells with Atalanta, and the 38-year old would still be strutting his stuff for the Nerazzurri today if it weren’t for a 3½-year ban for his involvement in the 2011 betting scandal.

La Dea have a rich history for a provincial side. They were promoted with games to spare last term and are in a good position to survive relegation this season. History suggests that their latest Serie A stay won’t be long, but Atalanta are Coppa Italia winners and their European history is hugely impressive for a club of their stature. The Nerazzurri have plenty to be proud of.

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There are plenty of great Gialloblu midfielders I could’ve dedicated an individual profile. Juan Sebastian Veron only spent a single season with Parma but he was an excellent playmaker and I’d love to analysis and break his playing style down. Massimo Crippa, the tough-tackling achorman, was one of my favourite Italian players growing-up, and what about Dino Baggio? Stefano Fiore? Diego Fuser?

As good as these players were, none captured my imagination quite like Tomas Brolin. The Swede played for Parma from 1990-95 and again in 1997, so I didn’t see him play as much as Baggio or Crippa, but I was often dazzled by what I saw of him. Brolin was a great player in his pomp, and his story is both sad and fascinating.

Spending his career’s formative years in his native Sweden, Brolin shot to international prominence a series of impressive performances at Italia ’90. Brolin’s club, IFK Norrkoping, were soon inundated with phone calls from potential suitors. In the end newly promoted Parma won the bidding war, and Tomas signed for the Gialloblu in a £1.2m deal later that summer.

Brolin started his Parma career as a deep-lying forward and quickly forged a productive striker partnership with Alessandro Melli, a more advanced striker. The two scored 20 goals between them in Parma’s first-ever season of top-flight football, helping propel the Gialloblu to a 5th-place finish and European qualification. 1991-92 was even more fruitful: Parma finished 6th in Serie A and beat Juventus 2-1 on aggregate to win the Coppa Italia (the first major trophy in the club’s history).

As successful as these two seasons were, the next two were the making of Brolin. Faustino Asprilla, the sporadically brilliant Columbian (and cult hero of mine, as a Newcastle supporter), joined Parma in the summer of 1992 and many expected him to take Brolin’s place in the starting XI. Brolin was benched in favour of Asprilla for most of 1992-93, but an injury ruled the Columbian out of the Cup Winners Cup final. Brolin grabbed his opportunity with both hands and performed well, helping Parma to a 3-1 win over Royal Antwerp.

Future legend Gianfranco Zola signed for Parma the following summer and it widely assumed that the Swede’s days were numbered. Nevio Scala, however, had an ace up his sleeve. The coach, having seen the benefits of playing Brolin in midfield in 92-93, pulled Brolin even deeper and positioned him centrally in a 3-man midfield with Crippa and Gabriele Pin.

Brolin thrived in his new role and was handed his former strike partner Melli’s number 7 shirt. Still only 23, Brolin reinvented himself as a playmaker. His technique, quality on the ball and passing ability made him a great candidate for the role, and his performances as a pseudo-regista helped Parma to another Cup Winners Cup final in 1994 (sadly, they lost 1-0 to Arsenal).

Tomas was in the best shape of his life by the time the 1994 World Cup came around. Playing as a striker (as he always did for his country), Brolin was one of the stars of the tournament. His grinta was vital to an unfancied Sweden side as they battled their way to a fantastic 3rd-place finish after victories over Russia, Saudi Arabia, Romania and Bulgaria, and a group stage draw with eventual champions Brazil.

Brolin scored 3 goals at USA ’94 and was the only Swede to be named in the All-Star team. Tomas had the world at his feet, and there were rumours of him moving to Barcelona as Hristo Stoichkov’s replacement. Despite the Catalans’ interest, Brolin opted to stick with Parma with the belief that they could mount a serious title charge in 94-95.

Sadly, this is where things start to fall apart. On November 16th 1994, Tomas Brolin broke his foot during a Euro ’96 qualifier in Stockholm. Parma were 2 points clear at the top of Serie A when Brolin sustained the injury and they suffered badly in his absence. The Swede eventually returned in April 1995 with his team 8 points adrift of league leaders Juventus. He made his return start for Parma on the 7th May in the absence of Gianfranco Zola and struggled for form and fitness for the rest of the season, failing to complete 90 minutes once. To compound his misery, Brolin was sent-off against Napoli on the last day of the season and Juventus took the Scudetto.

The Swede faced a long, arduous summer. Tasked with recovering his fitness and keeping new signing Stoichkov out of the team, Brolin scored two pre-season goals but Scala saw little improvement in his fitness level. Brolin was dropped for Massimo Bambrilla and never reclaimed his place. Struggling for form, fitness and confidence, Tomas Brolin had fallen out of the loop at Parma.

It was time to move on. Leeds United swooped to sign Brolin on a two and a half year deal and the Swede made his debut a day later at Newcastle. After battling his way into the Leeds XI, Brolin turned in a vintage performance against Manchester United on December 24th, 1995. Even Eric Cantona looked second-class as Tomas tormented the Reds’ defence all evening: Leeds won 3-1 with Brolin having a hand in every goal.

Things seemed to be looking up for Brolin and a good start at Leeds had yielded 4 goals from 8 Premier League games. Things turned sour in January 1996: Leeds were thrashed 5-0 by Liverpool and manager Howard Wilkinson chose to point the finger at Brolin, labelling the forward “lazy” and criticising his defensive contribution.

Things never really improved between Wilkinson and Brolin. Tomas was eventually loaned to FC Zurich after failing to report for pre-season training, but returned to Leeds shortly after Wilkinson was replaced with George Graham. Brolin, however, refused to go back to Elland Road, and only accepted his recall when threatened with legal action by his parent club.

Injuries continued to plague Brolin. A metal staple inserted into his ankle during an scar tissue-removal operation earlier in 1996 scuppered a move to Sampdoria. Oblivious to the staple’s existence, Leeds called Brolin back to Yorkshire to have the injury properly examined amidst fears that his playing career might have reached a premature end. Brolin never played to Leeds again, and was eventually loaned back to Parma in December.

His return to the Stadio Tardini was fruitless, with Brolin restricted mostly to brief cameos and substitute appearances. The Gialloblu decided not to renew the Swede’s deal and he returned to Leeds, only to have his contract terminated in October 1997 for skipping a match without prior permission.

Brolin at Palace: a shadow of his former self.

A free agent for the first time in his career, Brolin wasn’t exactly hot property but managed to secure a deal with Crystal Palace. His spell with the Eagles was every bit as shambolic as his time at Leeds. Brolin failed to score in 13 Palace appearances. By this point he was visibly overweight, completely out of form and a sad shadow of his former sense. He retired in August 1998 aged just 29.

It’s a huge shame that Brolin’s career panned out the way it did. He was once a wonderful player with all the potential in the world, but he never truly recovered from that first injury. Excellent in his first Parma spell and brilliant for the Swedish national side, Brolin was, in 2003, voted Leeds United’s “worst ever signing” in a BBC poll. Few players have fallen quite as far as Brolin, but his conduct at Leeds and Palace didn’t exactly do him any favours.

Most British football fans remember Tomas Brolin as an overweight flop, but not me. His time in Britain was an unmitigated disaster, but Brolin’s brief boom at Parma was absolutely thrilling. A midfield maestro for Parma and a deadly marksman for his country, I choose to remember Tomas Brolin, the wonderkid, not Tomas Brolin, podgy waster.

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Il Capitano: can anybody name me a better centre-back?

 

I’ve had a soft spot for Parma ever since I started watching Italian football in the nineties. Though I’m a tad young to remember most of the Nevio Scala era, I have some vivid recollections of some of the great teams and players the Gialloblu used to have. Fabio Cannavaro is probably my favourite defender of all-time, Gianfranco Zola is the best foreign player I’ve ever seen playing in England and Massimo Crippa introduced me to the value of a “hard-man” midfielder. Then there’s Lilliam Thuram, Enrico Chiesa, Gigi Buffon, Alessandro Melli, Tino Asprilla…

It would be wrong to call myself a Parma supporter: they, like Napoli and Hellas Verona, are just one of a number of Italian teams I’m particularly fond of. I don’t actively follow them and I don’t pretend to have any real loyalty to them, but I usually cheer when I see them doing well. I was genuinely gutted when they almost went out of business a few years ago. Parma were a huge part of my football education, so it’s good to see them back in Serie A under Thomas Ghirardi’s ownership.

Parma’s name always pops into my head when I think of “big” Italian clubs, even though they’re small fries compared to the likes of Inter and Juve. They were just so good in the nineties, and I haven’t really been able to shake that from my head despite their recent misfortunes (and stint in Serie B). It’s testament to the greatness of those old sides that I will always consider Parma one of the greatest Italian clubs.

They’ve never Serie A but boy did they come close. Parma were runners-up in 1996-97 and rarely finished outside the top six. In addition they’ve won the Coppa Italia thrice (91-92, 98-99, 01-02), the Supercoppa once (1999) the UEFA Cup twice (94-95, 98-99), the Cup Winners Cup (RIP) (92-93) and the European Super Cup (1993). An impressive record, and one that I hope they can add to in the future.

This week is going to be pretty self-indulgent. I’m going to spend a lot of time revisiting the good old days and profiling some of the prominent figures from this time period. I don’t want to completely neglect the Parma of today, but there are so many good memories to look back on.

Starting tomorrow I’ll be taking a closer look at some of my favourite Parma players, teams and managers. I’ve no idea how many I’ll get through but there are literally dozens of things I want to write about this week. Lets see how I do.

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