One of the great stories of the European season now on hold
was the success of tiny Italian club Atalanta.
Atalanta made history as when it qualified for the UEFA Champions League knockout phase after losing its first three games and failing to win any of its first four matches.
And it advanced to the quarterfinals with a convincing two-leg series win over Spanish club Valencia.
But the mayor of Bergamo, where Atalanta is located, believes the first leg contributed to the massive spread of COVID-19 in Italy and Spain, the two countries with the highest death tolls and in particular Bergamo, where more than 1,000 people have died in Bergamo, making it the most deadly province in all of Italy.
The first leg was played at Milan's famed San Siro Stadium on Feb. 19 because Atalanta's 21,300-seat Gewiss Stadium did not meet UEFA requirements. The game drew 45,792 fans who made their way from Bergamo and watched Atalanta win, 4-1.
The first case of the coronavirus was not reported until the next day when a man from the town of Codogno near Milan was admitted to intensive care, but within days parts of northern Italy were shut down. The coronavirus had been silently spreading through Lombardy.
"The match was a biological bomb," Giorgio Gori said in a live Facebook chat with the Foreign Press Association in Rome. "We were mid-February so we didn’t have the circumstances of what was happening. If it’s true what they’re saying that the virus was already circulating in Europe in January, then it’s very probable that 40,000 Bergamaschi in the stands of San Siro, all together, exchanged the virus between them. As is possible that so many Bergamaschi that night got together in houses, bars to watch the match and did the same. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have known. No one knew the virus was already here. It was inevitable.”
The game also drew 2,500 Valencia fans, and within a week the first COVID-19 cases in Valencia were reported, all from travelers to Milan for the first leg. The second known patient in Valencia was sportswriter Enrique Mateu, who spent 25 days in hospital before being discharged.
The return match was played on March 10, but Valencia was required to host Atalanta at the Mestalla Stadium behind close doors. Atalanta won again 4-3, getting all four goals -- two in each half -- from Croatian Josip Ilicic.
A week after the return game, Valencia reported that 35 percent of its players and staff who were tested returned a
"It’s probable that there were several major triggers and catalysts for the diffusion of the virus," immunologist Francesco Le Foche told the sports daily Corriere dello Sport, "but the Atalanta-Valencia game could very well have been one of them."
Le Foche said fans traveling together to the game and celebrating and partying in close quarters created a dangerous situation.
"I have to imagine many didn’t want to miss that game if they had tickets, even if they felt a slight fever," he said. "With hindsight, it was madness to play with a crowd present, but at the time things weren’t clear enough. It’d be unthinkable now."
Photo: Alessio Morgese/DPPI/Icon Sportswire