On the surface, Wednesday night’s Big Cup big kick-off has all the hallmarks of a classic minnows-made-good Disney sports film – a team of plucky unheralded small-town misfits trying to win the Big One against all the odds. For Atalanta, read the Bad News Bears, the Mighty Ducks, the, um, Fernfield Timberwolves (You know? From Air Bud? The heartwarming tale of the basketballing golden retriever? Tag line: “He sits, he stays, he shoots, he scores”? No? Your loss). There’s also the perfect antagonist – voracious, dastardly, moustache-twirling moneybags PSG, who have chomped their way through Ligue 1 yet again and now have their sights set on Big Cup, the bauble they really want, the one that has always eluded them, the one they’ll stop at nothing to claim at last.
On the surface, perhaps. But beyond the familiar sporting sheen lies a tragedy for Atalanta and the city of Bergamo on an entirely different scale and register. For a time Italy was at the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe, and Bergamo at the very heart of the unfolding tragedy. An estimated 3,000 people have died in the city, and 17,000 in the wider region of Lombardy. The club, and its European campaign, is inextricably linked to the epidemic both as a potential accelerator – the club’s last-16 home leg (played at San Siro in Milan) against Valencia in February has been described as a “biological bomb” by the town’s mayor – and, now, as a beacon of hope, a potential balm for the suffering.
“We will play with Bergamo and for Bergamo, this will give us extra strength,” said the Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler. “This region has suffered a lot, we know that very well in the squad and this gives us extra motivation when we go on to the field. It was the case in Serie A and it will be the case in Lisbon.” The abbreviated winner-takes-all mini-tournament over the next 12 days in the Portuguese capital, you suspect, might favour Gian Piero Gasperini’s free-scoring side more than the usual two-legged affairs. Either way, the club are three games from something remarkable.
“We must represent in the best way what our region is about, which is the ability to react to start again,” said Gasperini. “And if possible, also to give people something to smile about.”
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“It was my idea, I came up with it. I approached the club and they said it was a great idea. It’s not a message that every one should do it. A lot of businesses are suffering; it feels good to do something nice during a difficult time. One of my teammates is an accountant and he said he will do my tax return for free; another said they will bring me a coffee on the coach for away games” – Adam Nowakowski, who has agreed a £1-per-week contract at hometown club Bradford Park Avenue.
In the last of the current series of Forgotten Stories of Football, Nick Miller recalls the tragic 1989 plane crash in Suriname, where 15 Dutch footballers were among 176 people who died. This is the story of the Colourful XI.
Forgotten Stories of Football
The Colourful XI tragedy
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“Interesting to read the speculation on which Scottish Premiership manager will be the first to complain about fixture congestion (Tuesday’s Fiver), and also exactly how it relates to ownership of noisy metallic furniture, cajones being Spanish for drawers (as in part of a dresser or desk). I am happy to be one of 1,057 pedants to have the clanging brass cojones to point it out” – Tim Clarke (and 1,056 others).
“It was very generous of you not to mention that Sporting Club de Mundial were set up by fellow London media bubble members Mundial magazine, who state on their website that ‘we are a magazine and creative agency that reminds fans why they love football.’ I’ve had a good think, but smacking a referee in the hooter isn’t producing many reminders here” – Matt Emerson.
“If Nicola Sturgeon does Stop Fitba, should Hibs be declared champions or is it fairer that teachers decide the final league table?” – Gav Coull.
NEWS, BITS AND BOBS
Barcelona have announced that an unnamed first-team player has tested positive for Covid-19 after reporting for pre-season training. The player is not part of the travelling squad heading to Lisbon for the Big Cup showdown with Bayern Munich.
The crisis at Valencia has deepened after two key midfielders, captain Dani Parejo and former Arsenal man Francis Coquelin, were sent packing to local rivals Villarreal on the cheap.
Queen’s Celtic manager Neil Lennon is pure fuming after Boli Bolingoli caused three games to be postponed by jetting off to sunny Spain. “This has been premeditated. You don’t book a flight to Spain on a whim,” Lennon seethed. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Michail Antonio is set for a hefty pay increase from Taxpayers FC, as they look to tie down the 2019-20 Part II player of the season.
Find somebody who loves you the way Sevilla love Big Vase: the Spanish side beat Wolves to record their 24th win in 25 ties and set up a semi-final against Manchester United.
Sevilla’s win meant Rennes have qualified for Big Cup’s group stages, and the Ligue Urrrn upstarts celebrated by blasting out the anthem at their Roazhon Park stadium … at 3am.
Chelsea are eager to finally get Tiémoué Bakayoko through the door marked Do One on a permanent basis, but Milan would prefer another loan deal.
And 58-year-old Swiss defender Stephan Lichtsteiner, who spent a solitary season at Arsenal, has retired from football after leaving Bundesliga side Augsburg.
STILL WANT MORE?
Get in the mood for tonight’s Big Cup quarter-final with Nick Ames’s comprehensive backgrounder on what Atalanta’s run has meant to a city ravaged by Covid-19.
Fizzy Pop Leipzig are far more than a one-man band but it will be tough to beat Atlético Madrid without Timo Werner, writes Jacob Steinberg.
Eddie Howe’s former assistant Jason Tindall on his “tough, tough task” taking over at relegated Bournemouth after his old boss’s transformative reign.
This week’s Knowledge homes in on under-18 players given man-of-the-match champagne, managers sacked after winning titles and much more.
“It’s a little scary doing something new”: USA! USA!! USA!!! World Cup winner Sam Mewis on her Manchester City challenge in the Women’s Super League.
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