If Italy are successful in their UEFA European Under-21 Championship qualifying play-off against Hungary, they may have Atalanta BC to thank.
Atalanta are in Serie B but current Serie A and U21 players Michele Canini, Riccardo Montolivo, Marco Motta and Giampaolo Pazzini are all reaping the benefits of their time at Atalanta's Zingonia training base. Playmaker Montolivo and striker Pazzini are both with ACF Fiorentina and Gentile is ready to bet on their talent.
"Montolivo has not played on a regular basis so far but he has great qualities, both technically and physically," said Gentile. "Maybe he needs a bit of time but I'm sure he will prove his worth. Pazzini will become one of the best forwards in Italy. He is adapting to playing alongside Luca Toni at Fiorentina but he is already showing his talent."
Centre-back Canini, Italy's captain at the FIFA World Youth Championship earlier this year, is impressing at Cagliari Calcio, while right-back Motta is starting to show his enormous potential at Udinese Calcio after a convincing campaign with Atalanta last term. AC Milan talent scout Cesare Maldini recently compared Motta withi his son. "That was a great joy because Paolo Maldini is my idol," said Motta, 19. "That kind of praise gives me more strength and self-confidence."
A report published last season by the youth department of the Italian Football Federation revealed that 29 Serie A players had come from Atalanta's youth team - more than from any other club in the country. Mino Favini, for 14 years the head of the Atalanta academy, is the secret behind that success. "We really like the way [AFC] Ajax deal with young players," he explained. "They don't care about results on the pitch, they are only interested in showing all of their youngsters how to play."
Despite the strength of the academy, it is still a very modest set-up. Atalanta have just 17 scouts around Italy, of whom six operate outside the club's local region. However, the scale of the operation has not stopped it being effective with eight of the Atalanta senior squad having started playing for the club at the age of eight.
"Obviously that is enormously satisfying because it's more evidence that we have been doing a great job in the last few years," said Favini. "We are always motivated to carry on our work because these young players are the future of football." If the Azzurrini win the U21 championship for the sixth time since 1992 next summer, they will have to thank Atalanta again.