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It was the biggest football match in Atalanta’s history and a third of the population of Bergamo made the short trip to Milan’s famous San Siro stadium.
Nearly 2,500 fans from the Spanish club Valencia’s visit also attended this Champions League match.
More than a month later, experts say the February 19 match is one of the main reasons why Bergamo became one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic – a “biological bomb” was the way a respiratory specialist said so – and why 35% of the Valencia team were infected.
The match, which local media dubbed “Game Zero”, took place two days before confirmation of the first case of COVID-19 transmitted locally in Italy.
“We were in mid-February, so we did not have the circumstances of what was happening,” said the mayor of Bergamo, Giorgio Gori, this week during a live chat on Facebook with the Foreign Press Association in Rome. “If it is true what they say that the virus was already circulating in Europe in January, then it is very likely that 40,000 Bergamaschi in the stands of San Siro, all together, have exchanged the virus among themselves. It is possible that so many Bergamaschi that evening gathered in houses, bars to watch the match and did the same.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t know. Nobody knew that the virus was already there, “added the mayor. “It was inevitable. ”
Less than a week after the match, the first cases were reported in the province of Bergamo.
Around the same time in Valencia, a journalist who went to the match became the second infected person in the region, and it did not take long for those in contact with him to also be infected with the virus , just like the Valencia fans who were at the match.
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While Atalanta announced their first positive case for goalkeeper Marco Sportiello on Tuesday, Valencia said more than a third of their team had been 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 deadliest province in all of Italy for the pandemic. The Valencia region had more than 2,600 people infected.
Luca Lorini, head of the intensive care unit at Pope John XXIII Hospital in Bergamo, currently has 88 patients under his responsibility for the coronavirus; without including many others in other parts of the hospital.
“I’m sure that 40,000 people kissing and kissing while standing an inch apart – four times because Atalanta scored four goals (the end result was 4-1) – was definitely a huge accelerator of contagion, “Lorini told the Associated. Wednesday.
“Right now, we are at war. When the time comes for peace, I can assure you that we will see how many of the 40,000 people who participated in the match have been infected, ”added Lorini. “Right now, we have other priorities. ”
Silvio Brusaferro, director of the Higher Institute of Health of Italy, said this weekend during the national television briefing of the civil protection agency that the game was “one of the hypotheses” evaluated as the source of the crisis in Bergamo.
“It is certainly an analysis that can be done,” said Brusaferro.
Last week, the Bergamo cemetery became so overwhelmed with the death toll that military trucks began transporting bodies to a nearby area for cremation.
Italy remained the European country with the most cases, nearly 70,000 and with nearly 7,000 deaths – the most global and more than double that of China.
Spain is the next country in Europe with the most cases, almost 48,000, and has overtaken China in the number of deaths with more than 3,400.
More than 435,000 people worldwide have been infected and the death toll has been estimated at 20,000, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University. In total, more than 100,000 have recovered.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, which go away within two to three weeks. For some, especially the elderly and people with health problems, it can cause more serious illnesses, including pneumonia and death.
Official participation in the February 19 game was 45,792 – a home record for Atalanta, a small club making its debut in Europe’s best club competition.
Atalanta captain Alejandro “Papu” Gómez told the Argentinian daily Olé that it was “terrible” to have played in this match.
“It is a city of 120,000 people and that day (40,000) went to San Siro,” said Argentina. “It was a historic match for Atalanta, something unique. To give you an idea, my wife took three hours to get to Milan, whereas this trip normally takes 40 minutes. ”
The match was played in Milan because the Atalanta stadium in Bergamo did not meet the requirements set by UEFA, the governing body of European football.
Before the match, Valencia fans roamed freely around Milan and gathered in some of the city’s squares, including the Piazza del Duomo, drinking and singing team songs.
In retrospect, the conditions for viral contagion were high, with thousands of people gathering without much concern – at a time when the epidemic in Europe was not yet known – and then returning home. Almost 30 buses full of fans traveled 60 kilometers (37 miles) between Bergamo and Milan.
The day before the match, there was no social distancing as the officials of the two clubs mingled and exchanged gifts and handshakes at a gala dinner hosted by Atalanta.
“I have heard a lot (of theories), I will say mine: on February 19, 40,000 Bergamaschi went to San Siro for Atalanta-Valencia,” said Fabiano di Marco, chief pulmonologist at the hospital in Bergamo , to the Italian newspaper Corriere. della Sera. “In buses, cars, trains. A biological bomb, unfortunately. ”
Valencia defender Ezequiel Garay was the first player in the Spanish league to test positive for COVID-19. The team played a Spanish league match against Alavés about two weeks after the match in Milan, and later Alavés reported that 15 people in the club were infected, but that did not say that the cases were directly linked to the match against Valencia.
The president of the Italian football players’ association, Damiano Tommasi, believes that the sports authorities should watch Atalanta’s game long and carefully before restarting the leagues.
“Look what is going on in China, where players are now positive for the coronavirus – despite all the safety rules and precautions taken,” Tommasi told the AP, referring to a recent positive test for the old Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini with a Chinese club. Shandong Lunen.
Fellaini’s positive test was alarming because, as the epidemic began to spread in China, the virus would have regressed there.
“It will not be enough to just test the athletes,” added Tommasi. “The whole frame must be secure. Because if a team is blocked, it blocks the whole system. ”
After winning the first leg, Atalanta reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League after another return match victory on March 10, which was played in an empty stadium in Mestalla in Valencia after the Spanish authorities banned matches involving teams from northern Italy with supporters. However, a few thousand Valencian supporters gathered at Mestalla to welcome the team and watch the match together at nearby bars and restaurants.
In the past month, Atalanta has mourned the deaths of five former staff members. While ads on the club’s website made no mention of the virus, local media reported that at least four of them died with COVID-19.
However, only one positive Atalanta test has been announced.
“Some teams have chosen not to test their players unless they show symptoms,” said Tommasi. “Other teams have tested everyone. These are individual choices.
“The head of the civil protection agency spoke about the probability that for each proven positive case, there are probably 10 real positives. … The high number of positive points in Valencia makes us think. ”
With the Champions League suspended due to the pandemic, Atalanta has no idea when it could play in the quarterfinals – which would still be the club’s biggest game in its history. Meanwhile, the Bergamo and Valencia team are wondering about the unintended effects of their February match.