IT IS MATCH NIGHT in Bergamo, Italy. The native soccer crew, Atalanta, is taking part in an essential recreation within the Coppa Italia in opposition to Lazio, a crew from Rome. Atalanta’s stadium sits in a neighborhood alongside the Citta Alta, the higher metropolis, the historic a part of Bergamo ringed by Venetian plaster partitions from the sixteenth century. The floodlights twinkle, glittering in a chilly January sky.
Down the hill, there’s a bar. It has darkish wooden paneling and lengthy, rectangular tables. The bar is called Hog, brief for hedgehog. The menu at Hog incorporates a cartoonish animal with playful eyes drawn on its cowl.
The proprietor, Igor Prussiani, is a neighborhood, a real Bergamasco. He’s from Longuelo, the neighborhood subsequent to his bar. He loves Atalanta. He loves its gamers and its coaches. He loves its songs and chants. Largely, although, he loves the way it represents the dogged willpower of his metropolis. Close by Milan stands out as the vogue capital of the world, however Bergamo is blue-collar, Igor says, and Bergamaschi know how one can work, how one can sweat, how one can toil. On the within collar of Atalanta’s jerseys the phrase “La maglia sudata sempre” is written. Roughly translated, it means, “The shirt is all the time moist.”
On Atalanta match nights, Hog overflows with folks. It has beer faucets that grasp from the ceiling. It has a listing of authentic hamburgers, together with the “Hipster,” which options half a pound of beef, an artisanal bun, egg, cheese, bacon, onions and barbecue sauce. It’s a meal that stays with you for days. The Hipster is so adored it’s usually made in batches, then delivered to the lots of of shoppers crammed into the tables within the eating room. Throughout video games, the singing by no means stops at Hog apart from when Atalanta scores and everybody shrieks in ecstasy.
These moments — the seconds of sheer pandemonium when the place erupts — are why Igor opened Hog.
“The very best feeling,” he says, “is once you see the folks explode. Whenever you see the folks with their hearts of their arms.”
He seems to be round. Hog is empty tonight. In COVID-19 occasions, Igor explains, solely takeout is allowed. There isn’t any music, no buzz. No screaming. Just a few lonely patties sizzle on the grill within the again.
Atalanta’s followers watch their crew beat Lazio from dwelling. Igor watches from his restaurant. It’s the way it has been for months, via lockdowns and quarantines and, in fact, the staggering coronavirus demise toll that this metropolis has endured. You may assume the pandemic started within the Western world with Rudy Gobert and the NBA shutting down on March 11; you may assume that was the tipping level. It wasn’t. It was in Bergamo, the place three weeks earlier, everybody went to sleep considering that they had simply skilled the perfect day of their lives and woke as much as a nightmare.
And but nonetheless, hope abides right here, even after a lot heartbreak. Nobody is aware of when, Igor says, however quickly the Bergamaschi will sing within the stadium once more. Crowd into bars and hug and cheer once more. Be collectively once more. Quickly they are going to do these peculiar issues once more, these everyday-life issues that immediately went from being acts of consolation to acts of hazard.
A yr in the past, it was like that, Igor says. A yr in the past, it was superb. So now, when Atalanta takes the sphere on a match night time in Bergamo and the long run feels prefer it may lastly be inching just a bit bit nearer, it’s inconceivable for Bergamaschi like Igor not to think about the match night time, one yr in the past. The one from final February simply earlier than all of this started.
Atalanta performed that night time. The followers sang that night time. Hog was packed that night time.
Life then, Igor says, was regular.
THEY REMEMBER IT like this: It’s Feb. 19, 2020, and Igor opens his bar for lunch. There’s a respectable rush within the afternoon, however the eating room actually begins filling round dinner. Igor has had reservations on each desk within the place for months. Atalanta is taking part in within the Champions League spherical of 16. For a small crew whose solely vital trophy got here in 1963, Atalanta’s recreation in opposition to Spanish membership Valencia, a two-time finalist within the competitors, is one thing historic.
The sport itself is in Milan, about 40 miles down the highway. Atalanta’s stadium is tiny and inbuilt 1928. It hasn’t been modernized to Champions League requirements. So Atalanta performs Valencia within the famed San Siro as a substitute, one in every of soccer’s grandest phases.
The town of Bergamo’s total inhabitants is just 125,000, however some 40,000 Atalanta followers make the journey. Those that do not go to observe in particular person pack into bars like Igor’s; those that do discover loads of firm on the highway. Usually, it takes 45 minutes to drive to Milan; on this night time, the trip from Bergamo takes as much as three hours.
Fabio Piana arrives in Milan by about 5 p.m., or roughly 4 hours earlier than kickoff. Fabio grew up in Bergamo like Igor, and his childhood dwelling was solely 200 yards from the stadium. Fabio distinctly remembers being about 5 years outdated and asking his father on a Sunday, “Papa, why are so many individuals on the street?” His father merely pointed to the Curva Nord, the north aspect of the stadium the place essentially the most intense followers would all the time stand. It was on the spot love. Fabio, now in his late 40s, has been standing within the Curva Nord on match days for many years. His catalogue of Atalanta recollections runs deep, the type of man who goes chapter and verse on 2-2 attracts with AC Milan in 1983.
Fabio and his mates stroll to the San Siro from the café the place they’ve been consuming and singing. Scores of Atalanta followers arrive on the handfuls of buses that come from Bergamo. Others drive or take the prepare, and get to the bottom on Milan’s subways or taxis. Contained in the San Siro, the followers stand shoulder to shoulder, shouting the phrases to “Viaggiare per l’Italia Seguendo Te,” or “Touring Throughout Italy Following You.”
“I reside to like you / and can by no means betray you,” they chant. “And with my coronary heart in my throat / I am going to sing for you. Ale, Atalanta!”
The temper is delirious. Everyone seems to be smiling and laughing and shouting. Strangers throw their arms over one another’s shoulders. It’s a festa, a celebration. Youngsters of all ages are within the crowd too, regardless of the late hour, together with just a little boy named Edoardo, whose father posts on social media the observe he wrote to his son’s college informing them that Edoardo can be absent all day for “cultural-historical” causes. “He will probably be experiencing a day within the historical past books of Bergamo alongside together with his dad,” the observe says, and even the mayor of Bergamo, Giorgio Gori, retweets it with an approving message and the hashtag #GoAtalantaGo.
The ESPN FC panel preview Atalanta’s Champions League tie vs. Actual Madrid on Wednesday.
Gori is on the recreation, too, sitting together with his son. The mayor had a full day at work, together with assembly with Paolo Gentiloni, the previous prime minister of Italy, however by 6:30 p.m. he was out the door, within the automotive and on the way in which to Milan like everybody else. Gori’s son is 23 and ending up on the College of Siena, however Atalanta retains them shut as they reside aside. “That recreation,” Gori says, sounding like a proud father, “was a second of extraordinary union between us on a private and emotional stage.”
The match itself is euphoric. To advance to the quarterfinals, Atalanta wants to attain extra objectives than Valencia over two legs, one match in Italy after which one other in Spain. With 180 minutes of soccer to be performed, it takes barely a quarter-hour for Atalanta, the most important of interlopers, to indicate that it belongs. Hans Hateboer, a Dutch defender, opens the scoring and the shock within the stands mixes with rapture. Then Josip Ilicic scores. And Remo Freuler. Then Hateboer scores once more and immediately it feels as if the San Siro stadium may elevate off the bottom.
The Atalanta followers are incandescent. 4 objectives? Within the Champions League? For us? This can be a crew whose complete payroll is lower than what Cristiano Ronaldo makes himself. This can be a crew that wasn’t even in Italy’s prime division as not too long ago as 2011. This can be a crew that had almost 100-to-1 odds to win the match in the beginning and did not crack the primary web page of most oddsmakers’ betting sheets.
Now, Atalanta is soccer’s feel-good story, the fearless upstart whose followers have little interest in merely being joyful to be right here. Fabio barely even sees the third and fourth objectives go within the internet as a result of there may be a lot bouncing and chanting and shouting and beer flying everywhere in the space the place he’s standing, the Bergamaschi crushed in so tightly it’s as in the event that they share a face.
The ultimate rating is 4-1 and, as he leaves the stadium that night time together with his son, Gori, the mayor, is already planning what to do for the second leg. The ambiance contained in the stadium was unimaginable, Gori thinks, so would not it’s great if there was an enormous display screen arrange in the midst of Bergamo for the return match in just a few weeks’ time?
Everybody may come collectively once more, Gori thinks. One other festa, this time within the metropolis’s essential sq.. It could be magnificent.
IT IS IMPORTANT, at this level, to repeat: This was Feb. 19. So whereas now we’re inured to the frantic tempo of coronavirus information, at that second it was nonetheless one thing new, one thing overseas. Ought to there have been an inkling? Possibly. However it’s only human to look away from one thing scary for so long as attainable, to think about, to hope, it will not come close to.
On Feb. 19, the folks of Bergamo see the virus as one thing in China, telling one another, “OK, it is 15,000 kilometers away from right here and that is not our enterprise,” says Andrea Losapio, a journalist who has lined Atalanta for years. On Italian tv on Feb. 19, Andrea says, the ratio of stories tales about Atalanta within the Champions League to tales concerning the coronavirus is “at the least 10 to 1.”
That ratio, clearly, flips pretty shortly within the aftermath of the sport, and Gori doesn’t hesitate to say that “the week following the sport was one of many strangest weeks of my life.” On Feb. 20 — the day after the match — Gori learns of the primary reported COVID-19 case in a close-by city. On Feb. 21, 14 extra positives are reported within the Lombardy area, together with the physician who was treating a type of preliminary instances. On Feb. 23, the primary two instances in Bergamo are recognized.
“Then each day?” Gori says. “Increasingly more.”
At first, Gori and different Bergamo officers are unfazed. They proceed with discussions concerning the outside watch social gathering for the subsequent Atalanta recreation.
Then on March 5, Gori checks his e-mail at 11 p.m. and sees a observe from a regional public well being official whom he doesn’t know: “Mayor I’ve to clarify what’s actually taking place — it’s important to understand what’s actually happening.”
Late at night time, almost prepared for mattress, Gori feels chills as he reads on this e-mail about exponential unfold and a attainable scarcity of PPE and the potential for hospitals to be crippled by overwhelming demand. Inside weeks, all of it occurs, simply as predicted. Rising positives. Useful resource points. Overflowing hospitals.
By March 24 — a couple of month after the sport — almost 7,000 folks in Bergamo have examined optimistic and greater than 1,000 are lifeless. On March 27, The New York Instances publishes a story detailing Bergamo’s devastation as, basically, the primary metropolis exterior of Asia to be utterly enveloped by COVID-19. The headline quotes a neighborhood funeral director: “We Take the Lifeless from Morning Until Evening.” One native newspaper is overwhelmed by demise notices.
The importance of the Atalanta-Valencia recreation in spreading the coronavirus in Bergamo shortly turns into a divisive level. Fabio, the fan who grew up only a few hundred yards from the stadium, says that early on, some “folks from Italy have a look at us like unhealthy folks, just like the those who go round and unfold the virus.” A pulmonologist in Bergamo is quoted within the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera describing the Atalanta-Valencia recreation — with 40,000 folks collectively within the stands — as “a organic bomb.”
Amidst all of the concern and loss, that type of description positive aspects traction. Some see the match as a logo for what has gone unsuitable in Bergamo, if not its main symptom. The Related Press publishes an article labeling the Atalanta-Valencia match as “Sport Zero.” More than a third of Valencia’s crew and workers flip up with optimistic assessments after returning dwelling, and the second leg is performed at an empty stadium.
The science is sophisticated, and never totally definitive. In response to Dr. Seema Lakdawala, an knowledgeable who research the transmission of viruses on the College of Pittsburgh, there are advanced analyses nonetheless to be performed on aerosol dispersion patterns in an out of doors surroundings. Followers leaping throughout one another on the San Siro, she says, poses a danger of transmission, however in her opinion, on a recreation night time, eating places and bars like Igor’s can be even “extra of the catastrophe state of affairs,” as a result of “each time you discuss, breathe [and] shout, you are expelling viruses and aerosols … [which] are going to remain within the air for longer, particularly in poorly ventilated areas.”
Dr. Guido Marinoni, a longtime household physician in Bergamo and president of the province’s medical affiliation, says the buses and trains and subways that Atalanta followers took — once more, indoor, contained areas — have been doubtless environments wealthy for spreading the virus as effectively. He believes that whereas the match itself may effectively have been an “accelerant” in Bergamo’s deterioration, it was “not the one mass occasion that would have influenced the state of affairs.”
What is for certain is the unfold. Twenty % of the folks from Bergamo who attend the match within the San Siro in the end present signs of COVID-19 inside just a few weeks, in response to one examine. That features Fabio. His fever is excessive however, fortuitously, his signs don’t turn into dire. As he recovers in isolation, he follows the anguish on his cellphone.
Each morning, he says, he wakes up and checks a bunch textual content with mates from Bergamo. And each morning for 16 straight days, he says, “I used to be obliged to make condolences to somebody” for the demise of a mother or father or in-law or uncle or aunt.
Igor, the restaurant proprietor, turns into sick, too. His signs are extra severe. An ambulance involves his home as a result of he can not absolutely inhale. He’s taken to a Bergamo hospital, however it’s full. He stays there just one night time, then is intubated and transferred to a Milan hospital the place a mattress is offered. He’s positioned in a ward for emergency instances.
“There have been consistently sick folks coming in,” Igor says, “sick folks scattered all over the place and the factor that made you …”
His voice catches proper then, his eyes immediately moist. He feels it taking place once more. He takes just a few beats, sniffling, attempting to assemble himself. Then he describes the anguish of what he noticed:
Folks on stretchers throughout him, susceptible and trembling, reaching their arms up above them, their arms thrashing. They have been so determined, he says, it was as in the event that they have been attempting to claw the air into their lungs with their very own fingers. “They could not breathe,” Igor says lastly. “I noticed them mainly taking their final breaths. So many individuals on these stretchers with simply white covers on them.”
Igor spends one month within the hospital — two weeks of it in intensive care — earlier than being launched, and he is aware of he is likely one of the fortunate ones. However that timeframe is only a bodily one; the whole restoration, in fact, stretches a lot wider and deeper. Even as soon as he can breathe once more, Igor has to determine how one can save his restaurant. Methods to deal with his household and himself. How to not be afraid.
The restoration is figure, Igor says, and that’s in the end what Gori, the mayor, factors to as his metropolis’s salvation. The work. Even amidst an unprecedented disaster, Gori says, Bergamaschi are all the time in a position to fall again on the factor they know finest. They manage. They volunteer by the hundreds. They distribute masks. They ship groceries and medicines to seniors. They construct, inside weeks, a makeshift hospital in Bergamo’s fairgrounds to assist ease the overload.
They work. By way of lockdowns and quarantines, via college closings and enterprise restrictions, via spikes and valleys in an infection charges, they work. They work to carry their metropolis collectively.
IN 2010, ATALANTA started a program to ship a tiny, duplicate jersey and two bottles of system to the household of each single child born in Bergamo and surrounding areas. The concept behind it was easy: Round right here, rooting for Atalanta is nothing lower than a birthright.
“The connection between town and the soccer crew is stronger than every other state of affairs I’ve seen,” says Gori. “It’s a complete dedication, a complete identification.”
That’s the reason, Gori says, it isn’t some politician’s bromide for him to level to Atalanta as a “rainbow” for his metropolis in the course of the pandemic, a beacon that each distracts from the terrible current and, as he places it, “suggests a greater future.”
In August, greater than 5 months after the Valencia recreation, Atalanta loses to celebrity Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain within the Champions League quarterfinals in a detailed recreation. Some surprise if this would be the finish of the fairy story for Atalanta, however after a (very) brief summer season break, Atalanta picks up the brand new season simply because it left the outdated. It wins its first three video games. It scores 23 objectives in its first eight matches. It pulls off an upset of Liverpool, the English juggernaut, in a Champions League group stage match.
There aren’t any sold-out stadiums, in fact, no singing and chanting, however there are nonetheless the matches, nonetheless the connection. Fabio, who lives in New York now for his work, watches on his pc. Because the broadcasts are a lot quieter with out crowd noise, he can typically hear the bells of the church situated proper close to the stadium. That was his church rising up, he says. It reminds him of dwelling.
Igor watches, too, and talks with different restaurant house owners about when, lastly, the COVID-19 vaccine will probably be so widespread that he may open Hog’s doorways once more. He has misplaced almost 700,000 euros throughout this disaster, however his religion in Bergamo has by no means wavered. Because the restrictions elevate, he says, he’s considering of opening a second location. “It could be good to have a full bar and eat quite a lot of Hipster burgers,” he says.
One factor you do not hear fairly often from Bergamaschi is a want to “get again to regular.” There isn’t any such factor. Not right here. Not in a spot that has misplaced a lot. Almost 28,000 have died in Lombardy, the area that comprises Bergamo. An excessive amount of has occurred to this metropolis, to those folks, for there to be a return — a resumption — of something.
Subsequent week, Atalanta will play in a Champions League knockout spherical once more, dealing with a Spanish crew once more. This time it’s Actual Madrid, one of many titans of Europe. The sport will even be in Atalanta’s personal stadium; sufficient enhancements have been made that the outdated place is now as much as commonplace.
There won’t be a full stadium that night time, and even as soon as there may be on some future night time, will probably be inconceivable for it to really feel the identical. The love for Atalanta won’t waver, however that does not imply it will probably’t change.
So, when the stadium lastly opens to the general public once more, in fact they are going to go. Igor, Andrea, Dr. Marinoni — even Mayor Gori and his son. However it won’t be prefer it was earlier than. There will probably be holes. Fabio will stand within the Curva Nord once more, however when he seems to be to the aspect or behind him or down the row, he won’t see all of the faces he had seen for therefore a few years earlier than. The losses are all over the place. “Diego, Bruno, Evan, Marco,” he says. These are simply 4 of the names he mourns.
“Will probably be robust,” Fabio says of going again to the stadium. “Powerful, but additionally joyful. Completely happy as a result of we should be joyful. Completely happy as a result of we will probably be there and we are going to bear in mind them.”
It’s the solely selection. They are going to chant, Fabio says. They are going to shout. They are going to sing “Viaggiare per l’Italia Seguendo Te,” shouting the phrases out collectively, nonetheless far aside they need to be to make it secure. They are going to sing as loud because it takes to make up for individuals who cannot sing with them.
Close to or distanced, with a masks or with out, a Bergamasco’s love for Atalanta is unbreakable. The shirt is all the time moist.
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