Whether it be Leicester City winning the Premier League, Greece’s remarkable Euro 2004 triumph, or Kaiserslautern claiming the 1997 Bundesliga instantly after promotion, everyone loves an underdog story.
Despite not coming across any silverware recently, Atalanta has been an electrifying revelation in Italy’s top flight for the past few seasons.
Located in Bergamo on the outskirts of Milan, the city is famous for existing on a mountain, representing the lows of relegation and the highs of the Champions League and Europa League quarter-finals less than five years ago.
Atalanta’s prominent rise all while playing attractive and attacking football has been no fluke, but rather a consistent long-term project focusing on youth development.
Esteemed with the likes of FC Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam, the Italian club boasts one of the best youth academies in the world.
Holding both a UEFA A coaching and scout license working with the Bergamo club, Australian-born Domenico Gangemi has brought his knowledge and expertise to Australia.
Atalanta BC completed his first-ever affiliation with Adelaide City, Christian Brother Lewisham College in Sydney, and Servite College in Perth.
In an exclusive interview with The Inner Sanctum, Gangemi opened up on how he has turned his love and passion for coaching and development into a fulfilling career.
“I started coaching 25 years ago in Italy where I have spent 43 years of my life both playing and coaching,” Gangemi told The Inner Sanctum.
“In 2018 I was accepted to complete a professional coaching license in Coverciano ‘the house of managers’ with Italians who had won the World Cup such as Luca Toni and Mauro Camoranesi [as well as] Italy’s ‘golden boy,’ Gianni Rivera.
“My family and I moved back to Australia and did some work in Melbourne which was the beginning of a great experience.
“Also in 2018 I met the head of the Atalanta youth academy, Stefano Bonaccorso, and that’s where the relationship started to form when we started talking about expanding affiliation programs outside of Australia.
“In 2019, thanks to Claudio Lucchini who was a former scout of Atalanta BC, I went to the famous Zingonia headquarters of the club (a village in Lombardy) with a group of players from Perth and from there the connection between the two countries grew stronger.
“I have such a big responsibility going up and down from Zingonia and Australia but it’s a privilege because everyone associated with Atalanta are great people.”
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Founded in 1946 through an Italian community, Adelaide City retains the origins of Juventus wearing the famous black and white stripes.
With a proud history attached, the South Australian club are one of the most successful clubs in the country by virtue of three Oceania Club Championships, three national championships, three national cups, and 19 state championships.
Gangemi explained the successful partnership thus far with Adelaide City.
“Last year our [Atalanta] director Loris Margotto spoke with former Adelaide City president Valentino Migliaccio who are very good friends and because we were ready to start our project in Australia we created the first international affiliation of Atalanta,” he said.
“In July we organised a football camp with myself and another two coaches from Bergamo in Adelaide which was a huge success with a lot of positive feedback from the parents and all the people involved thanks to the hard work of people like Vincent, Tony, Dome, and Damien as we couldn’t have done it without them.
“The important thing to stress is that Atalanta is not looking to affiliate with other clubs or colleges who are only interesting for marketing purposes but rather believe in a technical project.
“Adelaide City is the perfect club in terms of that because they offer support to the coaches, coaching workshops online, and organising clinics.
“There is a lot of potential within this affiliation program and opportunities to have successful careers,” he said.
Over the past few years within the grassroots system of Australian football, there has been tremendous focus on the classical 4-3-3 formation and playing out from defence at all costs.
Although this philosophy encourages attacking football and is pleasing to the eye, is this one-dimensional system hurtful in the long term?
The beauty of the game is that it can be tactically interpreted in so many different ways which is what Gangemi aims to impose here in Australia.
“Last year I took my group to Italy to realise the benchmark we aspire to achieve,” he said.
“We played against top clubs with good results but for me it is irrelevant. The way we played is entirely different.
“I think this is the point we need to improve regarding the federation to provide more freedom and teach the coaches how to be flexible.
“Formations are only numbers. I can interpret a 4-3-3 formation in many different ways, but if you don’t have the right personnel and have four strikers but no wingers for example, then the formation becomes useless.
“The goal should be to produce players good enough to play at a high level which is what we are implementing with our curriculum at Atalanta. It’s all about critical thinking and being able to read the game, and the coaches around me at Adelaide City understand this.”
One of the toughest obstacles that Australia desperately needs to overcome is the communication barrier between the top hierarchy all the way down to ensure everyone is on the same page from a program standpoint.
From what Gangemi has overseen so far during his time down under compared to Italy, what are some particular aspects that Australia requires improvement and what has been done well at a high standard?
“I want to mention something very important,” he said.
“We have just had the Women’s World Cup which has been massive, but I would love that Australia does not make the same mistakes as Italy when they won the World Cup in 2006.
“I don’t want the Matildas’ result to make people think that the job is done and that Australian football is fixed. To be honest, I don’t like to judge other coaches and it is not my position to do so, but I don’t think the Matildas expressed the best football on the park. It was more about the resilience and strong mentality that achieved a semi-final which is a great result.
“However, Australia needs to improve the quality of football produced on the pitch. You just have to look at Spain and realise that they can play the same style of football as the men. They play such amazing football and it was fantastic to watch.
“Touching on Australia’s strengths, youth competitions are very competitive and also physically I think they are more advanced than some European players mainly because they have the chance to play more sports.
“Technically there is no difference because there are good technical players in Australia as there is in Italy.
“Where the very large gap is noticeable is when they have to play in a team environment and errors become more recognisable due to too much emphasis placed on individuals.
“Our players here are missing the knowledge of the game and are unable to analyse game situations because they don’t play enough games which means they are not exposed enough to that type of training.
“Tactically, yes, Australia is far behind.”
Trials have always been famous when coaches from Australia try to select players based on a few hit-or-miss performances.
This is a tradition that needs to be eliminated according to Gangemi.
“I have been to a lot of trials but I hate them and I think it is killing the game, especially at the NPL level,” he said.
“If there are a few players who might have some potential but not quite be at the standard expected, then the clubs should work with them and help them develop into better players.
“Why put unnecessary stress on young kids and make it a competition? You cannot possibly judge a player once or twice in that environment.”
From Roberto Donadoni, Gaetano Scirea, and Alessio Tacchinardi to the more recent manufacturing talents of Franck Kessie, Manuel Locatelli, Alessandro Bastoni, Amad Diallo, and Dejan Kulusevski, Atalanta’s program is beyond remarkable.
Despite being able to offload these talents to big European clubs in exchange for a profitable fee, the club continually defy the odds without huge financial resources.
So, what are the secrets behind Atalanta’s success at youth level? Gangemi provided a fascinating insight.
“I like this question because I have been asked it so many times. I had the same question because when I first arrived and spoke with the people from Atalanta I said to them: ‘So Juventus have money, AC Milan have money, and other clubs have better facilities, so what is the secret behind it?’ he said.
“Stefano Bonaccorso invited me to the training ground to discover it for myself.
“The first secret is the environment in which you can smell Zingonia where the players from the under 6’s to the first team all train together at the same location.”
As mentioned earlier about Bergamo positioned on a mountain, Gangemi highlighted a perfect analogy.
“For example, if you are eight years old training on the ground and maybe the Primavera [senior youth team] just finished their session, you can see the top of the hill which provides that extra motivation,” he said.
“People in Zingonia feel safe which is not the case in a lot of NPL clubs and also many teams in Italy. What do I mean by feel safe? When a player is in Zingonia they know that the coaches look after them, the club looks after them, and there is a retirement mentality rather than a challenge mentality where if you are good enough, you can retire in the first team.”
“The cultural aspect is another advantage because the people in Bergamo are famous in Italy for their hard-working mentality and focus on attention to detail.
“Quality coaching and the scouting department make up the ingredients for such a well-run program from top to bottom. The first team with Gian Piero Gasperini [Atalanta coach] played a 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1 formation, but last year in the Primavera they used to play 4-4-2, so we are not even forcing coaches to play the same formation because every team has certain characteristics.”
To have a coach from the very highest level in Italy share his wisdom and experience with Australia can only do wonders for a developing football nation.
With more coaches and mentors like Domenico Gangemi, the better equipped Australia will be for future generations to follow.