How a Champions League soccer match became a coronavirus ‘biological bomb’

More than a month later, experts are pointing to a Champions League game between Atalanta and Valencia as one of the biggest reasons why Bergamo, Italy, has become one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic — a “biological bomb” was the way one respiratory specialist put it.

“We were mid-February, so we didn’t have the circumstances of what was happening,” Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori said this week. “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.”

Here is what to know about a match that has been dubbed “Game Zero” by local media:

When was the Atalanta-Valencia match?

The match between Atalanta (from Italy’s Serie A) and Valencia (from Spain’s La Liga) was held on Feb. 19, two days before the first case of locally transmitted COVID-19 was confirmed in Italy. It was the first leg of a home-and-home set in the Champions League’s Round of 16. Atalanta won, 4-1.

Where was the match held?

The game was played at the famed San Siro Stadium in Milan. Atalanta’s stadium in Bergamo didn’t meet the requirements set by European soccer governing body UEFA.

How many people attended the Atalanta-Valencia match?

The official attendance for the Feb. 19 game was 45,792 — a “home” record for Atalanta, a small club making its debut in Europe’s top club competition.

It was the biggest game in Atalanta’s history and a third of Bergamo’s population — including nearly 30 busloads of fans — made the 37-mile trip from Bergamo to Milan.

“It’s a city of 120,000 people and that day (40,000) went to the San Siro,” Atalanta captain Alejandro “Papu” Gómez told Argentine daily Olé. “It was a historic match for Atalanta, something unique. To give you an idea, my wife took three hours to get to Milan, when that trip normally takes 40 minutes.”

Nearly 2,500 fans of visiting Valencia also traveled to the match.

Remo Freuler of Atalanta BC celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during a UEFA Champions League round of 16 match against Valencia.
Atalanta players celebrating a goal scored during their Feb. 19 game against Valencia.Getty Images

Why were the conditions in Milan so dangerous?

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 traveling back home.

Before the match, Valencia fans freely roamed around Milan and gathered at some of the city’s plazas, including the Piazza del Duomo, drinking and chanting team songs.

“I have heard a lot (of theories), I’ll say mine: Feb. 19, 40,000 Bergamaschi went to San Siro for Atalanta-Valencia,” Fabiano di Marco, the chief pneumologist at the hospital in Bergamo, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “In buses, cars, trains. A biological bomb, unfortunately.”

Have players from Atalanta and Valencia tested positive for coronavirus?

Atalanta announced its first positive case Tuesday 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. Valencia defender Ezequiel Garay was the first Spanish league player to test positive for COVID-19.

Valencia played a Spanish league game against Alavés about two weeks after the game in Milan, and later Alavés reported that 15 people in the club were infected, though it did not say the cases were directly related to the match against Valencia.

A journalist who traveled to the match from Valencia became the second person infected in the region, and it didn’t take long before people who were in contact with him also had the virus, as did Valencia fans who were at the game.

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.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Bergamo, Italy?

Less than a week after the Atalanta-Valencia game, the first cases were reported in the province of Bergamo.

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.

“I’m sure that 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimeter apart — four times, because Atalanta scored four goals (the final result was 4-1) — was definitely a huge accelerator for contagion,” said Luca Lorini, the head of the intensive care unit at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo.

A statue in the empty stands at Estadio Mestalla for the Champions League return leg between Valencia CF and Atalanta on March 10, 2020.
A statue in the seats at Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla, which hosted the second leg without fans on March 10.Handout via Getty Images

“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. “Right now we have other priorities.”

By last week, Bergamo’s cemetery became so overwhelmed by the number of dead that military trucks began transporting bodies to a neighboring region for cremation.

Italy remained the European country with the most cases, nearly 70,000, and with almost 7,000 deaths — the most worldwide and more than twice as many as China.

What’s next for Atalanta and the Champions League?

After winning the first leg, Atalanta advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals following another victory in the second leg on March 10, which was played in an empty Mestalla Stadium in Valencia after Spanish authorities prohibited games involving teams from northern Italy to be played with fans.

With the Champions League suspended because of the pandemic, Atalanta has no idea when it might play in the quarterfinals — which again would be the club’s biggest game in its history. In the meantime, both the Bergamo team and Valencia are left wondering about the unforeseen effects of their match in February.

With AP

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