Monday, 19 November 2007

[Feature] Tiny Albinoleffe make waves

"Better a few than nobody" reads the banner that follows Albinoleffe's footballers around Italy.

Written in the Bergamo dialect, the slogan offers a wry reflection on the fact that the traveling fans who display it at away grounds can occasionally fit into a single car.

Albinoleffe are short on supporters but they could not be doing more to attract attention to themselves. Nine years after the club's birth, they sit top of Serie B for the first time.

Their unlikely success has prompted comparisons with the rags-to-riches tale of Castel di Sangro, the village team whose two-season stay in Serie B in the late 1990s became the subject of a critically-acclaimed book by American writer Joe McGinniss.

Such stories are not uncommon in Italy with Chievo Verona climbing from the lower leagues to Serie A and European qualification in 2002 before relegation last term.

It was certainly tempting to view Albinoleffe's 1-0 win at Chievo last month as symbolic of the moment that the mantle of romantic favorites passed on.

After all, Albinoleffe do not even have their own home, having left their intimate, 3,000-capacity stadium to play at top-flight Atalanta's Atleti Azzurri D'Italia ground in nearby Bergamo on gaining promotion to Serie B.

Even here their regular crowd is around 3,000.

"They have just a handful of ultras. Most of the people at their games are Atalanta supporters who want to spend their Saturday afternoon at the ground because it is cheap," local journalist Lorenzo Amuso said.

Albinoleffe are an amalgam of two former Serie C2 (fourth tier) teams, Albinese Calcio and SC Leffe.

Struggling to stay afloat, these two small-town clubs from a factory-filled valley north-east of Milan joined forces.

Their merger met with plenty of opposition in both Albino, an industrial town of around 15,000, and Leffe, a smaller place of about 5,000 inhabitants higher up the foothills of the Alps.

Yet the new club gained promotion to Serie C1 (third tier) in 1998-99, their first season of existence, and have not looked back.

They beat Pisa in a play-off to reach Serie B in 2003, overturning a first-leg defeat in a home game played in front of 10,000 Pisa fans and just 1,000 of their own supporters.

Despite the pundits' regular predictions of their demise, they have survived comfortably in the second division.

Last season, they recorded draws both at home and away against Juventus and can thus boast an unbeaten record in league football against Italy's most successful club.

The fairy-tale factor is enhanced by the team's quartet of mid-to-late thirty-somethings.

Bergamo locals Ivan Del Prato, Mirco Poloni, Roberto Bonazzi and Ruben Garlini are all savouring the moment, none more so than talented playmaker Poloni.

He began his career in Atalanta's much-heralded youth academy but rejection by a teenage sweetheart made him lose his way. His focus restored, AlbinoLeffe have given him the perfect platform.

The club have also benefited from the astute ownership of Gianfranco Andreoletti, who made the inspired decision to invite Elio Gustinetti, architect of Albinoleffe's promotion to Serie B, back to the club in the close season after Emiliano Mondonico's departure.

Under Gustinetti, they have won 10 and lost two of their opening 14 league games.

Captain Del Prato said: "Our main strength is the unity in the group. We are a solid team who share the same ambitions and dreams but we don't think we lack quality either. There are plenty of good players in our team."

Among them is Marco Cellini, Serie B's joint top scorer with 11 goals. Like his colleagues, he earns less than 210,000 euros a year, almost a weekly wage at Serie A's big clubs.

Whether or not Albinoleffe, who sit a point ahead of Pisa, can extend their adventure remains to be seen.

"We have shown we are not top of the league by accident but we don't know how good we really are," said Del Prato. "We are finding that out with every match. But if we are still up there after Christmas, we aren't going to hide."

Source: Reuters

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