Ahead of MLS All-Star game, local Juventus fans eager to tap into Atlanta soccer market
Gavino Asteghene — the loudest man in a loud room — scurried around the Italian restaurant Fritti on Tuesday afternoon greeting people, facilitating photos, watching along as his long-held dream became a reality.
A day before the club takes on the MLS All-Stars at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Asteghene is ushering in an Atlanta-based Juventus supporters group. He hopes it will convene local supporters for big games and become a central organization helping to promote Juventus and Italian soccer in the area.
The idea had long been in his head, but the All-Star game appearance was the nudge that he and Juventus needed to reach the finish line.
“It was in the works, but we never were getting ahead, just because some people were not serious,” Asteghene told the AJC, with a fittingly thick Italian accent. “In the last month, I was talking with the Vancouver fan club and I was talking with Miami — and we already have more people registered than when they started. It’s a dream come true.”
There’s a bar on one side with Caesar salad and prosciutto. Juventus legends David Trezeguet and Mauro Camoranesi stand in the front of the room, signing autographs and greeting supporters. Juventus highlights play on the screen above. A sea of black and white overwhelms the room.
It’s an authentic Italian experience, and Gavino fits the bill as its authentic Italian founder. He’s overjoyed.
Domenic Martelli and his son, Nicolas, stand closer to the back of the room, looking on at the spectacle.
“Man, I think this a great opportunity,” Domenic said. “When you look at a couple of the other signees, the Serie A teams — the Italian teams — have done, it’s only going to promote the league again to the way it was in the ’80s and ’90s when all the best players played in Italy.”
Chief among them, of course, is Christian Ronaldo, who left Spanish club Real Madrid for Juventus this summer on a hefty $117 million transfer fee. Ronaldo buzz pervades the restaurant, despite the fact that he didn’t make the trip with his new club to Atlanta for the week. They think Ronaldo can help lift Juventus back to the prominence it once held in the sphere of world soccer.
Luca Kurtz, a local high-schooler who supports Juventus, counts himself among those excited about the Ronaldo signing. But there’s a caveat.
“He’s really old, but he’s still been insane the past couple years,” Kurtz says. “It was a lot of money for, like, a 33-year-old.”
Conversation quickly devolves into soccer talk all afternoon — whether the Italian league can return to the top league in the world, how the English Premier League will stack up in the year to come, the happenings on the transfer market. That type of attention beyond tepid interest is spreading in this country, they assert. This fan club is yet another step in that direction.
The largest step, of course, was the founding of Atlanta United. It’s hard to go five minutes without hearing a mention of the club.
“As soon as we got a team, the city was ready for it,” Kurtz said. “I think it was mainly that. It’s not that we didn’t go to the games, it’s that we didn’t have games to go to.”
His sole plea as soccer tries to further entrench itself as a major American sport?
“Just focus on the younger kids.”
There’s a grass-roots energy behind Atlanta United that works in tandem with a pre-existing interest in the sport on a global level. Juventus playing in the All-Star game — one that expects a record-setting crowd and is against an MLS squad that features six Five Stripes players — just pumps more wind at those sails. There’s no conflict in rooting for both Atlanta United and Juventus. The more interest, they say, the better.
“We’ve been lucky to be able to watch how Atlanta United has been able to capture the entire city in bringing soccer to the forefront of Atlanta,” said Anthony Catalano, donning a Juventus golf shirt, “and Juventus is just a great opportunity showcase this city as a soccer town.”
On Wednesday, the dozens of supporters in attendance will be wearing their white and black gear, but largely equally supportive of the Atlanta United players on the field. The MLS All-Star game is as much a celebration of growth as it is a competition; Wednesday will be a seminal day both for the league and for the newly established supporters club.
As the festivities wind down, the dozens of founding members gather for a photo with the legends. As the photo is set to be taken, the group screams out with vitality a common rallying cry for the historic Italian club. They hope it’s the first of many. “Forza Juve!”