How a football match doomed northern Italy to an accelerated outbreak

It was a breezy afternoon in northern Italy as the local team Atalanta emphatically overcame Valencia, in what seemed like the most promising campaign the team has had in decades. People cheered, rejoiced, and without knowing it — spread the virus.

“Game Zero”

Football is a religion — in Italy, as in many parts of the world. With almost three billion supporters, football has many of the traits a religion has: it has billions of followers, churches (stadiums), and, of course, gods.

The coronavirus pandemic has notably intertwined with religion in several ways. In South Korea, one of the first non-China epicenters of the outbreak, the virus initially spread through a Christian sect, and even with what is arguably the world’s best response to the pandemic, authorities were barely able to contain the contagion. In Eastern Europe, the virus has likely spread to church gatherings, especially as some countries give communion with a shared spoon. In Italy, it was the other religion — football — that contributed to the virus spreading.

For every goal that Atalanta scored, the risk of contagion increased as people cheered on for their favorite team.

“I’m sure that 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other at a distance of one centimetre for four times, as Atalanta scored four times, well, those were an incredible accelerator for the infection,” Luca Lorini, the head of the intensive care unit at Giovanni Hospitali XXIII in Bergamo, told the Associated Press Wednesday.

It wasn’t just the game itself. Tens of thousands of people came in by bus, train, and many went to the pubs to celebrate.

“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, chief epidemiologist at the Bergamo Hospital, told the Italian newspaper, Corriere Della Serra. “In buses, cars, trains. A biological bomb, unfortunately.”

The game was held in Milan, rather than Atalanta’s hometown Bergamo — largely because the team’s stadium is too small. This means that many traveled the ~40 miles (65 km) between the two cities, and to make things worse, there were also thousands of Spanish fans at the game, rooting for Valencia.

A recent statement from the Spanish football team announced that 35% of the staff has coronavirus. The AP reports that more than 30 buses traveled together to the game, with fans spending over an hour in cramped conditions.

Less than a week after the game, the first cases were being reported in Bergamo and Milan.

Local politicians argue that they couldn’t have foreseen the situation, and it was unreasonable to cancel the game.

“We were mid-February so we didn’t have the circumstances of what was happening,” Bergamo Mayor Giorgio Gori said this week during a live Facebook chat with the Foreign Press Association in Rome. “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,” the mayor added. “It was inevitable.”

In hindsight, that game probably played a role in spreading the disease, although there is currently no way of telling how much the game exacerbated the spread of the disease in Bergamo and Milan.

Atalanta progressed to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but the competition is suspended indefinitely and the region is faced with its worst crisis in peacetime — as is the rest of the country and much of the world at the moment.

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