“Maradona would have been shit if he was from the North Pole.” Alongside genetics, the surrounding environment plays a pivotal role in the development of a young footballer according to Stefano Bonaccorso, head of one of Europe’s most prolific youth academies at Atalanta.
I was at a trimonthly training day, held at the Centro Sportivo Bortolotti, where the doors are opened to coaches of junior teams in neighbouring areas, and was immediately taken back by both the presence of and respect for the coaches and staff around the club. The team has just secured European football for the 2017/18 season whilst working on a shoestring budget, resulting in a first team that heavily features academy graduates.
Italian football’s obsession with conservative tactics and defensive organisation are a thing of a past and, as far as Bonaccorso is concerned, a complete myth. Technical quality and fluidity on the ball are the paramount focus of each session here in the complex in Bergamo, a city known to many only for having the airport that sits beside the Autostrada A4 that runs into Milan.
Yet this jaw-dropping Scuola di Calcio – School of Football – has delicately moulded the careers of World Cup winners in Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Cabrini, through to Roberto Donadoni, Manolo Gabbiadini, Riccardo Montolivo and veteran striker Giampaolo Pazzini, as well as cannon-balling serial finishers, Filippo Inzaghi and Christian Vieri, to the top of Serie A’s goalscoring charts.
Giuseppe Ciatto is the man responsible for founding the academy in the 1940s, and the whole project was given the crucial revamp in 1991 when current club president Antonio Percassi hired Bonaccorso to run the show at the Zingonia-based academy.
As scandal and corruption have riddled the Italian game for the past 15 years, Atalanta have bucked the trend by refusing to shell out on costly imports and instead focusing on homegrown talent, with only 43 of the 303 academy starlets born on foreign ground.
Back to the sodden wet morning on the artificial pitch overlooked by the Alps. I was in awe, and as my education for the day lay started in the hands of a man who has worked alongside Antonio Conte, Arrigo Sacchi and Marcello Lippi, I dropped my pen and paper to join in with his session, obeying his every demand. I wouldn’t have raised a questioning eyebrow should the coaching guru have requested me to jump through a hoop whilst perfecting the Macarena in order to develop my overlapping runs. As it goes, he didn’t.
“Let’s forget about shapes and formations – 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1, they’re all just phone numbers if the players can’t execute the technique correctly,” was preached as we took to our stations.
Players were set up into zones that were articulately prepared to the millimetre and, with a ball each, we worked on various control and juggling techniques for 60 seconds at a time before proceeding to the next level. The coaching director would only mutter the odd word of praise before querying players on their thoughts and what they supposed the next step would be. This is commonly known as a sandwich – praise players, ask what’s next, then encourage. The session was controlled by the players but the 54-year-old was forever the distinctive leader.
“It’s important that we pick when and how to speak to our players, if not then our voice just becomes background noise.”
After keeping warm-ups fluid, sprightly and competitive, the players were progressed into groups of two and competed in games of football tennis, rapidly shifting gears from serving themselves for a volleyed pass to teeing up their partner. The use of hands was then prohibited completely and we were 40 minutes and well over a thousand touches each into the session. All youth players below the age of 16 are put through these technical exams every three months in order to assess their development levels.
With the winning teams moving on to play the next groups, games were three minutes long before questions were fired into the players from Bonaccorso: “What techniques were used? Tell me which tactical and strategic skills you needed. When and how did communication come into play?
“These are all things that will naturally fall into place for our players without us coaches having to say a word. If a player is struggling to perform a technique then let them work away on it before ever throwing them in at the deep end. Technique is the key,” said the charismatic figure. “Praise players that are getting it right and give the kids the opportunity to look around and study the others before moving in to guide and walk them through it step-by-step.”
We were ticking closer towards the end of our session and I couldn’t help but look around and think about the coaches around me, every single one of them captivated by the maestro’s constructive words. Ultimately, the whole idea of the day was to engage with the community and mature coaching education, yet my cynical mind couldn’t help but wonder if this was also laid on to simply further enhance the football food chain.
Should these coaches return to their respective clubs and work within the guidelines and ethos of the Atalanta way then, later down the line when a youth prospect outgrows local football, he will be in the appropriate mindset and on the correct path for the Serie A club to whisk in and take on his career.
The development and opportunities for players are of extreme importance, yet there have never been more highly respected Italian coaches at the top end of football than there are now with the likes of Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti, Max Allegri and Claudio Ranieri. All of them have taken the game by storm in recent times.
To get onboard the coaching ladder in Italy couldn’t be easier as courses are regularly organised in each city and the new UEFA C course is a taster that will give the starters a flavour of the Italian football federation’s expectations.
Whilst the licence is not mandatory for coaches who wish to enrol onto the UEFA B, the beginner course is aimed at coaches who intend to instruct players from ages 5-8 at amateur clubs and is a popular choice due to the points system that helps organise the register of who qualifies for each course.
Points are awarded to a coach for each course they complete and each season they coach or play; the idea behind it is to keep individuals from falling away from the game. Four points are automatically awarded to former professional players, resulting in many course places being reserved by ex-pros.
The B licence can be enrolled into and completed inside as little as 30 days through the intense course option, which is often held in the summer months. Once the B licence is acquired, coaches are given various books, DVDs and other materials containing teaching methods and mechanisms.
All UEFA A and UEFA Pro courses are held at Coverciano – also known as Casa Italia – a training centre located at the Headquarters of the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, in Florence. With four standard pitches, a multi-purpose gym, a swimming pool and two tennis courts beneath sculpted cypress trees, this is the home of Italian football.
Alongside more than 2,400 others, the managers of the current top-flight champions in Italy, England, Germany and Russia all graduated at this university of football.
Pupils on the final two courses are examined theoretically, practically and orally. In a general chat about tactical conundrums, that is judged by communication attributes rather than the strategic philosophies of an individual; a hopeful must refrain from saying the expressions “in my day” or “my football”. Either of these phrases are an instant fail on the Pro course as the game is always evolving and Italy doesn’t want coaches left behind. “By the time a book on tactics is published, it is already old,” says Renzo Ulivieri, chairman of the Italian Football Managers’ Association.
Back to Zingonia and it is question and answer time with Atalanta’s head of academy. With cones and balls by his side, Stefano Bonaccorso takes a moment to be interrogated by the engrossed students, keen to pick his brain.
Advising me that whilst there is a “system of play” template in place at the club, with technical skills being the focal point, each youth coach is allowed the freedom to employ any tactical system or shape for their team. This led me to my next query on the scouting of opponents and the importance placed on winning and at which ages the result begins to take priority. The three-second gaze directly back at me went some way to preparing me for the imminent response.
“Why do the English always come here and talk about kids not needing to worry about winning? What do England ever win at any level?” With the group falling around laughing I wore an abashed grin, yet I was still quizzical enough for him to continue his answer. “We don’t travel with our groups to get our faces painted and taste ice cream. Would you prefer to play well and lose, or win an ugly game 1-0 in the 94th minute? If there’s a game of football then we want to win. Always.”
The questions continued from others and, as I took notes, a couple of the more prudent, cigar-scented coaches attempted to console me whilst assuring me that Bonaccorso was just busting my balls.
Following the pasta and chicken that were assisted on their way down by an espresso at lunch, we took to the stands to view the training sessions of our preference. With six or seven opting for the goalkeeper sessions, the majority stayed on the east side of the complex to watch the under-17s and under-15s put through their paces.
All youth coaches, immaculately kitted out in green and white Nike gear, were awaiting the arrival of the players to the pitches that were readied 45 minutes prior to the session.
The prodigies appeared on the pitches from the main building of the €10m centre that boasts 40 dorms, a wellness room, massage room, ice tanks, swimming pools, state-of-the-art gyms, meeting rooms and offices, alongside a warehouse that sits beyond four gloriously kept training pitches. All of this luxury is only for the youth teams of under-17 and younger.
Players wore GPS sensors and were instantly thrown into technical warm-ups that saw four players time runs into the middle of a square before turning out and playing a pass to a teammate. As the session progressed so did the exercises, and the guidelines of control, dribbling and passing advanced every 60 seconds. The procedures ran like clockwork.
As we wandered between sessions, taking in the traits and mannerisms of each exercise, it was clear to see that although these youngsters are finely tuned machines on strict diets and sleeping patterns that are both measured and structured by La Dea’s doctors, nutritionists, physios and psychologists, there was an air of freedom to each session.
For the majority of sessions, coaches remained silent throughout, yet there was a compelling level of respect from the budding prospects who never so much as tutted in frustration at teammates or questioned a decision by the coaches in the training games. Equipment was collected in by players at the end and there was laughing and joking as the teens teamed up to return the goals to the warehouse.
There is an extremely healthy atmosphere buzzing around the air at an academy that is rated number one in Italy, and Bonaccorso has gone some way to create it. Whilst visiting numerous youth set-ups of Serie A clubs around the nation, I heard Zingonia mentioned as a leading example by many, and with the club having reached Europe’s elite with a first-team squad made up of 38 percent of academy graduates, it’s easy to see why.
The mentality towards coaching and education are in a transition period in a nation that has lifted the World Cup four times, and Atalanta’s Zingonia academy is leading the way.
By Alex Clapham @alexclapham