A story remarkable for its simplicity and apparent straightforwardness began to emerge from Atalanta's training ground last week, only to assume a surreal and senseless complexity. In the words of Il Corriere della Sera, it was as if "Franz Kafka had knocked at the gates of Zingonia."
Before facing Roma on Wednesday night for a place in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia, news came through that Atalanta defender Guglielmo Stendardo had told coach Stefano Colantuono he would not be travelling with the squad to the capital. A 3-0 defeat followed and, disappointingly for their supporters, Atalanta were knocked out.
After the game, an irritable Colantuono appeared in front of the cameras with an axe to grind. "Stendardo will take responsibility for his actions," he told Sky Italia. "The club will decide on what measures to take."
There was consternation in the TV studio. Because it wasn't as if Stendardo had done anything scandalous. He was in Salerno and had been there since Tuesday. But the Atalanta defender hadn't gone AWOL. He wasn't on strike or partying on the Amalfi Coast.
Rather than hitting the clubs, he was hitting the books. Because after studying law at La Sapienza in Rome while playing for Lazio - getting 108 marks out of 110 for his thesis on 'The Sportsman and Doping' - he was due to take a series of written exams as part of his efforts to qualify as a lawyer proper.
Wasn't this commendable? A 31-year-old footballer, aware that his career in the game is short and insecure, showing the foresight to look beyond it. Of course. Except that's not how Atalanta saw it.
Colantuono sought to remind Stendardo of where his priorities should lie. He went so far as to bring up the obligations "a well paid professional" should have towards "those who allow him to eat [and put food on his table]."
On the one hand, his grievances were justifiable. Stendardo had been suspended for the previous match and, although now eligible for selection again, he was 'unavailable' once more at a delicate moment in the season.
It was frustrating because not only did Atalanta have a chance to reach the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia for the first time since the 2004-05 campaign, they also had a trip to champions and league leaders Juventus on the horizon.
On the other hand, though, by making an example of Stendardo, someone who was setting a worthy one for others to follow, Atalanta arguably did more damage to their reputation than defeats in either of those matches would do to the club.
"We'll wash our dirty laundry in-house," Colantuono promised. Yet what exactly was 'dirty' about a player trying to educate himself? Couldn't the club do with a 'clean' role model like Stendardo after seeing their captain and talisman Cristiano Doni banned for match-fixing a year ago? Confronted with an open-goal, Atalanta missed and scored a PR own-goal instead.
The position taken also appeared contrary to everything Atalanta stand for. They're a club that has built its reputation on an academy that has long been thought of as the best in Italy. Directed by Mino Favini, the foremost talent spotter and developer of it in the country, he has brought through the likes of Giampaolo Pazzini and Riccardo Montolivo, to name but a few, with the understanding that "school counts just as much as football" and "study must come first, football second."
Obviously there's a discernible disconnect in the treatment of Stendardo and, at the very least, a lack of communication. Colantuono's issue was that inadequate notice had been given. On this, Stendardo had reportedly been poorly advised. He'd sought permission to take the exams from Atalanta's general manager Pierpaolo Marino a month ago, only to be told that he should wait a little longer before broaching the subject with Colantuono. By the time he did, it was adjudged too late.
Colantuono was indifferent. Then again, of course he was. For here was a man who had missed his final exams at school after a "bellyful of frutti di mare" left him hospitalised for 25 days and in bed at home for a further month with food poisoning and hepatitis A. "I wanted to repeat the final year, but professionalism [as a footballer] prohibited me from doing so."
He presumably expected it would prohibit Stendardo too. But why should it? Footballers train a couple of hours a day. They have a lot of time on their hands. Most shop. A few, like Stendardo, choose to study. Just how few is clear from a recent survey.
Only 0.8 per cent of footballers in Serie A have a degree. Out of 587, there are just five, including Stendardo, who have worn a cap and gown. The others are Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini - "not all footballers are ignorant," he says - then there's Inter full-back Yuto Nagatomo, Napoli's third choice goalkeeper Roberto Colomba and Siena striker Erjon Bodgani.
Although he's in a minority of footballers in Italy, the majority of Atalanta supporters backed Stendardo's decision last week. Eighty per cent of those polled by local papers in Bergamo were behind him and not the club. Because, as La Gazzetta dello Sport pointed out, "he didn't ask permission for a night-out at Pacha in Ibiza, but for an exam that opens up a future and can be taken only once a year."
And so with the people and the press on his side, Stendardo went to sit his exams. Leaving the law department at Salerno university on Friday after completing the papers, he was all smiles. "I am happy because for me this is the realisation of a dream," Stendardo said. "I hope that I can be an example for youngsters: sport and study can be reconciled, [they're not mutually exclusive]."
What awaited Stendardo on his return to Bergamo was unclear. A punishment for "doing good" was under discussion. What would it be? A fine payable to charity had been mentioned. Exclusion from Atalanta's squad to face Juventus was hinted at too. "Football takes itself too seriously at times," Gianni Petrucci, the president of the Italian Olympic Committee scoffed, when hearing of Atalanta's plans to reprimand Stendardo.
Facing a backlash, the club came to its senses. Atalanta's high horse was seen by the public to be nothing more than a pitiful nag. The presence of Stendardo's name in the squad for Juventus represented a climbdown. He came on, replacing Giacomo Bonaventura, before the end of the first half in Turin with his team already 3-0 down and destined for defeat.
Atalanta fell to 12th in the table, hardly a perilous enough position to justify the club's stance on Stendardo earlier in the week. Colantuono, of course, tried to laugh the whole thing off afterwards. "He owes us dinner and should I need a lawyer in the future then maybe I will call him to my defence."
After the events of the past week, would Stendardo take him on as a client? The jury's probably out on that one.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.