COPA90 travelled to Northern Italy to experience the first Derby of Lombardia between Atalanta and Brescia in 13 years. As we discovered, it’s one of Italian football's fiercest rivalries, built on a millennia-long feud.
There is something about Italian football that people can’t quite put their finger on. The passion, the singing, the rivalry. There is a certain ‘Made in Italy’ appeal to it, but what is the special brew that makes football here so iconic?
It comes down to Campanilismo, which literally translates to ‘Belltowerism’, or intensified love of place, originating from Italy’s complex and divided history. It’s a word deep-rooted in religion, harking back to a time where local communities centred around their churches.
The derby of Lombardia is emblematic of Campanilismo and, last November after a 13-year wait, the stage appeared to be set for its return. Wars and conflicts dating back to the Middle Ages lay the foundations for this rivalry, which continue to manifest themselves today in the form of food, art, dialect and, above all else, football.
Despite being somewhat esoteric, the rivalry between Bergamo – the home city of Atalanta – and Brescia is one of the most famous and parochial hatreds on the peninsula.
Disputes began way back in 1126 over the control of neighboring territories. The ensuing skirmishes and frictions lasted for almost 30 years, only abating 1154, when Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa returned lands, which Bergamo had previously commandeered, to Brescia.
In 1156, war broke out between the cities in relation to another territorial dispute. The Brescians invaded the province of Bergamo near Palosco and inflicted a resounding military defeat on their rivals. 2,500 people perished as Bergamo’s ranks were forced to surrender.
Enrico VI eventually brought relative peace to the region through the delicate restitution of territories, but disputes raged on. The simmering animosity eventually boiled over again, this time culminating in the gruesome Battle of Cortenuova, where the Bergamaschi – under the banner of the Ghibellini – finally defeated the Guelfs of Brescia.
Since then, the two provinces have endured similar histories, floating between Venetian, Milanese, French, Napoleonic and Austrian ruling, before eventually becoming integrated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
The extended period of battle, foreign influence, and general City-state mentality has created a series of micro-distinctions between the provinces. So, when Italy established its first football clubs only two decades later, sport quickly became the vehicle through which these historic rivalries were played out.
Under the shadow of regional giants Milan, Atalanta and Brescia established themselves as hotbeds of talent, providing many legends of the game to A.C. Milan, including the Baresi Brothers, Pirlo, Inzaghi and Donadoni.
Friction between Atalanta and Brescia has always existed on account of the cities’ aforementioned conflicts, but it was a match in the 1992/93 season that saw the fixture take on a whole new dynamic.
In the midst of one of the most violent and gruelling periods in Italian football, Atalanta and Brescia both boasted notorious Ultras groups. The match was suspended three times due to fan animosity; scenes which saw hundreds of police officers injured.
This provided the catalyst for three decades of intense but sparsely contest derbies, which have been littered with incidences and memorable anecdotes – most notably in 2001, with the run of Mazzone.
When the fixture finally returned this year, football fans across the country were eager to see how a new generation of supporters would interpret this incredible legacy.
Unfortunately, Italy’s authorities doubled down on their attempts to suppress the fans with new policing innovations – which have been widely criticised throughout Serie A – like the Tessera del Tifoso and fan ID cards.
Such methods have only served to decrease attendances across the nation, something which mirrors Serie A’s recent decline in quality. So, at this, the first derby in a decade, Atalanta supporters decided to boycott the game. The match ended 0-3 to the visitors, but the real loser was Italian football as a whole.
For a country where football carries such rich historical value – and whose supporters express cultural significance with such fervour – the match promised much more than it ultimately delivered.
Still, the derby of Lombardia remains one of the most iconic, under-appreciated and fascinating rivalries football has to offer, with the weight of a millennium's worth of history behind it.