The Soccer Match that Kicked Off Italy’s Coronavirus Disaster

From WSJ

The Soccer Match that Kicked Off Italy’s Coronavirus Disaster

Decision to hold Atalanta-Valencia Champions League match in February accelerated spread of pandemic

By Joshua Robinson

April 1, 2020 10:40 am

On the afternoon of Feb. 19, Andrea Pontiggia was heading from Bergamo, Italy, to the biggest soccer match of his life—along with 40,000 of his closest friends.

The novel coronavirus, which had barely registered in Italy by that point, was the furthest thing from their minds.

The whole city seemed to be on the road. In 48 years of rooting for Bergamo’s local professional soccer team, a modest outfit called Atalanta, neither Mr. Pontiggia nor his hometown had ever seen anything like it. Atalanta was somehow the Cinderella of European soccer, and now it had a date in the sport’s most prestigious tournament, the Champions League. The match had even been moved to Milan for the occasion.

The stadium, San Siro, had enough room in the stands for twice as many Bergamaschi as Atalanta’s home park, and the Italian fans intended to cram into every available seat. None of them had yet heard the words social distancing.

“Everything was crowded. The roads, all the surroundings, the stadium,” said Mr. Pontiggia, 55, who took nearly three hours to complete the 35-mile drive to the San Siro. “It was practically a whole town moving to Milan. It was amazing, incredible.”

It was also a contagion disaster. Atalanta fans were walking into a petri dish. In a single mass gathering, they were about to prove how sporting events could end up at the center of a global pandemic.

By then, the coronavirus was spreading through untold numbers of asymptomatic carriers. Forty thousand bouncing, hugging soccer fans were the perfect vector: Experts are now convinced that Atalanta’s 4-1 win over Valencia was a catalyst in turning Lombardy into one of the worst-hit regions on the planet. The coronavirus was so present inside the stadium that night that once Valencia returned to Spain, 35% of its traveling squad eventually tested positive.

“Two weeks after Feb. 19, there was an incredible explosion of cases,” said Dr. Francesco Le Foche, an immunologist in charge of infectious disease at Policlinico Umberto I in Rome. “The match played a huge role in disseminating coronavirus throughout Lombardy and in Bergamo in particular.”

For the rest of the world, Atalanta-Valencia stands as a warning, in particular to parts of the U.S. where social distancing isn’t the norm. Though it is impossible to pinpoint the moment of transmission and Italy hasn’t counted how many people who tested positive attended the match, epidemiologists uniformly view these mass gatherings as accelerants to widespread infection.

While European sports leagues weighed playing games behind closed doors, the U.S. plowed ahead for days with full arenas after the first stateside cases.

In the final week before American sports went dark, Madison Square Garden alone shuffled more than 100,000 people through its doors, having received no government guidance to stop. The New York Rangers won there twice. The Knicks won once and lost twice. That included a defeat to the Utah Jazz, whose player Rudy Gobert would test positive days later. The surviving members of the Allman Brothers also played a reunion show and the Big East basketball tipped off, only to be shut down at halftime of a game played without fans on March 12, the day after most U.S. sports were shuttered.

Specialists would view any of those events as a potential “distinctive amplifier,” according to Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “These kinds of mass gatherings were ideal environments for the virus to be transmitted.”

For Atalanta, there were few clues of what was lurking before the game. The coronavirus had arrived from Munich in late January, according to authorities, and silently spread the surrounding Lombardy region in small numbers.

By the time of the match in mid-February, cases in Italy were still rumors and authorities could afford to think in half-measures. Atalanta’s banner clash with Valencia was allowed to proceed as normal. Around Europe and across the Atlantic, most sports wouldn’t consider suspending their schedules until weeks later.

A first major eruption, in small towns south of Milan, wasn’t detected until the days immediately following the game. Some nearby outbreaks could be traced to other mass gatherings, like Brescia’s folk festival of San Faustino, which drew around 100,000 people into the streets.

Few settings are as cruelly effective at spreading contamination as a major sporting event. Beyond the shared airspace and contact of sitting in stands, rubbing shoulders, and high-fiving, the simple experience of getting to your seat is an exercise in crowd-surfing. In cramped European stadiums for big games on cold nights, it is part of the charm.

Through the lens of coronavirus, every detail feels like a mistake.

Atalanta supporter Luca Brignoli, 57, thinks back to his subway ride to the San Siro from downtown Milan, bodies jammed against the door. He remembers milling around the piazza in front of the stadium, where fans from both sides mixed and drank and snacked from food trucks. He wonders how many people might have coughed or sneezed while navigating the stadium’s turnstiles and narrow passages.

“People went as if to a feast,” said Mr. Brignoli, who hasn’t displayed any symptoms. “We were very close to each other.”

Over the next two weeks, grim news washed across the region daily. Italy’s soccer federation closed the stadiums and eventually suspended the season. By March 10, the whole country was on lockdown. And all the while, Bergamo’s body count kept rising. Hospitals were overwhelmed. The military drove away the dead by the truckload.

“We underestimated this infection,” said Martina Cambiaghi, Lombardy’s minister for sport—and one of the 40,000 in the San Siro. “After the match, fans were in pubs, in bars, in restaurants in Milan, not only in Bergamo. This event was the great accelerator. But really we didn’t know that it was a problem.”

Lifelong Atalanta supporter Matteo Scarpellini had arranged tickets for a group of friends from Austria. Today, he wishes it hadn’t been so easy. Almost two weeks after the match, Mr. Scarpellini received a phone call from Vienna, right on cue.

“I’m sorry, I have to tell you,” one friend told him. “I have coronavirus.”

On Feb. 19, there were only three confirmed cases across the entire country, and no evidence that community transmission had begun.

By March 8, that number was 997 in the province of Bergamo alone. And as of Tuesday, the Lombardy region accounted for 41% of the confirmed cases in Italy, according to government data. Bergamo is now up to 8,803 cases, exceeded only by the much larger city of Milan.

Mr. Pontiggia and his wife Susanna suspect that the only reason they didn’t become Bergamo statistics is that they were never tested for coronavirus. Ten days after the match, a time frame consistent with its incubation period, both came down with flulike symptoms that included aches and a fever. They were sick for over a week.

“We had no idea at all about the danger of the contamination,” Mr. Pontiggia said. “In two weeks, everything was completely changed.”

Exactly 20 days after Atalanta beat Valencia at home, the two sides met again in Spain for the second leg of their home-and-away series. By then, the Italians were living in a different world. Whereas the San Siro had been packed, Valencia’s stadium would have to be empty. Europe was determined to play on, but soccer authorities had ordered that the game take place behind closed doors.

The ban didn’t stop Valencia fans from meeting in droves outside the stadium to show their love—another gathering that local reports blame for propagating the disease in Spain.

Inside, meanwhile, Atalanta won 4-3 and punched its ticket to the Champions League quarterfinals. The club had never reached this tournament before, let alone climbed into the elite of European soccer. The players celebrated on the field and heard their own singing echo back from the empty stands. They returned to Italy that night unsure of what awaited them—Bergamo’s case count was climbing. The club put out a message begging supporters not to meet the team at the airport.

“We know that many people followed us home and can’t go out to celebrate,” Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini wrote in an open letter. “We will have time to do it in June at the end of the season.”

Atalanta hasn’t played since. Practice is canceled indefinitely. And the Champions League is on hold until further notice. The team has so far only confirmed one case in its playing squad, goalkeeper Marco Sportiello.

The club’s website tells a different story. In the past two weeks, it has published death notices for five figures who were close to the club, including a Bergamo priest, a former youth coach and a team masseur. Local reports linked all of them to coronavirus. All five had celebrated Atalanta’s victory.

On Atalanta message boards, contributors now post about uncles, sisters, and parents who develop sudden, nasty coughs. Deprived of games, the widely read Atalantini supporters’ website is publishing as much news about coronavirus in Bergamo as the soccer team.

“Everyone I call to ask what is the situation, they have lost a family member or a friend or a person they knew,” said Daniele Lorenzi, an Atalanta season-ticket holder.

The website has also become a place to coordinate fundraising efforts and calls for volunteers. Two fan groups, the Curva Nord Ultras and the Associazione Tifosi Atalantini, said they have donated over €60,000 to relief efforts. Members of the Ultras, the hard core of Atalanta fans, were also offering their skills as painters, electricians, and plumbers to Italy’s Civil Protection in building field hospitals. Mr. Lorenzi, who normally works in a factory making ice cream cones, spent last week building an ambulance bay at the temporary facility in Bergamo. Six weeks ago, he and his friends were hanging banners in the San Siro.

“Over the past four years we have made a whole city happy,” Atalanta’s Argentine captain Papu Gomez told Italian media. “What we are experiencing is something terrible. I still can’t understand it.”

—Marcus Walker and Eric Sylvers contributed to this article.

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