It was the biggest game in Atalanta’s history and a third of Bergamo’s population made the short trip to Milan’s famed San Siro Stadium.
early 2,500 fans of visiting Spanish club Valencia also travelled to that Champions League match.
More than a month later, experts are pointing to the February 19 game as one of the biggest reasons why Bergamo has become the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic – a “biological bomb” was the way one respiratory specialist put it – and why 35 per cent of Valencia’s team became infected.
The match, which local media have dubbed ‘Game Zero,’ was held two days before the first case of locally transmitted Covid-19 was confirmed in Italy. Less than a week after the game, the first cases were reported in the province of Bergamo.
At about the same time in Valencia, a journalist who travelled to the match became the second person infected in the region, and it didn’t take long before people who were in contact with him also contracted the virus, as did Valencia fans who were at the game.
While Atalanta announced its first positive case for goalkeeper Marco Sportiello, Valencia said more than a third of its squad got infected, “despite the strict measures adopted by the club” after the match in Milan.
As of Tuesday, nearly 7,000 people in the province of Bergamo had tested positive for Covid-19 and more than 1,000 people had died from the virus – making Bergamo the most deadly province in all of Italy for the pandemic. The Valencia region had more than 2,600 people infected.
Luca Lorini, the head of the intensive care unit at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo, currently has 88 patients under his care with the coronavirus.
“I’m sure that 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimetre apart – four times, because Atalanta scored four goals (the final result was 4-1) – was definitely a huge accelerator for contagion,” Lorini said.
“Right now we’re at war. When peace time comes, I can assure you we will go and see how many of the 40,000 people who went to the game became infected,” Lorini added.
Atalanta captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez told Argentine daily ‘Olé’ it was “terrible” to have played that game.
“It’s a city of 120,000 people and that day 40,000 went to the San Siro,” the Argentinian said. “It was a historic match for Atalanta, something unique. My wife took three hours to get to Milan, when that trip normally takes 40 minutes.”
Looking back, the conditions for virus contagion were high, with thousands of people gathering without much concern – at a time when the outbreak in Europe wasn’t yet known – and then travelling back home. Nearly 30 busloads of fans made the 60-kilometre trip from Bergamo to Milan.
Italian players’ association president Damiano Tommasi believes sports authorities should look long and hard at the Atalanta match before restarting leagues.
“Look at what’s happening in China, where players are testing positive for the coronavirus now – despite all the safety rules and precautions being taken,” Tommasi said, referring to a recent positive test for former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini with Chinese club Shandong Lunen.
“It’s not going to be enough to just test the athletes,” Tommasi added. “The entire setting needs to be safe. Because if one team is stuck, it blocks the entire system.”
After winning the first leg, Atalanta advanced to the Champions League quarter-finals following another victory in the second leg on March 10, which was played in an empty Mestalla Stadium in Valencia.
Over the past month, Atalanta has mourned the deaths of five former staff members. While announcements on the club website made no mention of the virus, local media have reported that at least four of them died with Covid-19. Still, only one positive test from Atalanta has been announced.
“Some squads have chosen not to test their players unless they show symptoms,” Tommasi said. “Other squads tested everyone.
“The head of the civil protection agency has talked about the likelihood that for every proven positive case there are probably 10 actual positives… the high number of positives at Valencia makes you wonder.”
With the Champions League suspended because of the pandemic, Atalanta have no idea when they might play in the quarter-finals – which again would be biggest game in the club’s history. In the meantime, the Bergamo team and Valencia are left wondering about the unforeseen effects of their match last month.