IT IS MATCH NIGHT in Bergamo, Italy. The native soccer group, Atalanta, is enjoying an necessary sport within the Coppa Italia in opposition to Lazio, a group from Rome. Atalanta’s stadium sits in a neighborhood alongside the Citta Alta, the higher metropolis, the historic a part of Bergamo ringed Venetian plaster partitions from the 16th 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, quick 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. Principally, although, he loves the way it represents the dogged willpower of his metropolis. Close Milan would be the trend 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 dangle from the ceiling. It has a listing of unique 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 consumers crammed into the tables within the eating room. Throughout video games, the singing no means stops at Hog aside 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 while you see the folks explode. Once 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 is no such thing as a music, no buzz. No screaming. A couple of lonely patties sizzle on the grill within the again.
Atalanta’s followers watch their group beat Lazio from dwelling. Igor watches from his restaurant. It’s the way it has been for months, 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 they’d simply skilled the very best 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’ll do these odd issues once more, these everyday-life issues that instantly 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 wonderful. 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 unattainable for Bergamaschi like Igor not to consider 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 enjoying within the Champions League spherical of 16. For a small group whose solely important trophy got here in 1963, Atalanta’s sport 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 street. Atalanta’s stadium is tiny and in-built 1928. It hasn’t been modernized to Champions League requirements. So Atalanta performs Valencia within the famed San Siro as a substitute, one in all 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 look at in particular person pack into bars like Igor’s; those that do discover loads of firm on the street. 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 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 probably the most intense followers would all the time stand. It was immediate love. Fabio, now in his late 40s, has been standing within the Curva Nord on match days for many years. His catalogue of Atalanta reminiscences runs deep, the form of man who goes chapter and verse on 2-2 attracts with AC Milan in 1983.
Fabio and his pals 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 practice, 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 dwell to like you / and can 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. Kids of all ages are within the crowd too, regardless of the late hour, together with a bit of boy named Edoardo, whose father posts on social media the word he wrote to his son’s college informing them that Edoardo could 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 word 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 sport, 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 6:30 p.m. he was out the door, within the automobile 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 dwell aside. “That sport,” 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 targets 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 instantly it feels as if the San Siro stadium may raise off the bottom.
The Atalanta followers are incandescent. 4 targets? Within the Champions League? For us? It is a group whose whole payroll is lower than what Cristiano Ronaldo makes himself. It is a group that wasn’t even in Italy’s high division as lately as 2011. It is a group that had practically 100-to-1 odds to win the event at first 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 pleased to be right here. Fabio barely even sees the third and fourth targets go within the web as a result of there’s a lot bouncing and chanting and shouting and beer flying all around 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 course 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 most important sq.. It might 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 is just 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 reports tales about Atalanta within the Champions League to tales concerning the coronavirus is “at the very 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- city. On Feb. 21, 14 extra positives are reported within the Lombardy area, together with the physician who was treating a kind of preliminary instances. On Feb. 23, the primary two instances in Bergamo are recognized.
“Then daily?” Gori says. “Increasingly.”
At first, Gori and different Bergamo officers are unfazed. They proceed with discussions concerning the out of doors watch social gathering for the following Atalanta sport.
Then on March 5, Gori checks his e mail at 11 p.m. and sees a word from a regional public well being official whom he doesn’t know: “Mayor I’ve to clarify what’s actually occurring — you need to understand what’s actually occurring.”
Late at night time, practically 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 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 — practically 7,000 folks in Bergamo have examined optimistic and greater than 1,000 are useless. On March 27, The New York Instances publishes a narrative detailing Bergamo’s devastation as, primarily, the primary metropolis outdoors of Asia to be fully enveloped COVID-19. The headline quotes a neighborhood funeral director: “We Take the Lifeless from Morning Until Night time.” One native newspaper is overwhelmed demise notices.
The importance of the Atalanta-Valencia sport in spreading the coronavirus in Bergamo shortly turns into a divisive level. Fabio, the fan who grew up just some hundred yards from the stadium, says that early on, some “folks from Italy take a look at us like unhealthy folks, just like the people who go round and unfold the virus.” A pulmonologist in Bergamo is quoted within the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera describing the Atalanta-Valencia sport — with 40,000 folks collectively within the stands — as “a organic bomb.”
Amidst all of the worry and loss, that form of description good points traction. Some see the match as a logo for what has gone mistaken in Bergamo, if not its major symptom. The Related Press publishes an article labeling the Atalanta-Valencia match as “Recreation Zero.” Greater than a 3rd of Valencia’s group and employees flip up with optimistic exams after returning dwelling, and the second leg is performed at an empty stadium.
The science is sophisticated, and never solely definitive. In accordance with Dr. Seema Lakdawala, an skilled who research the transmission of viruses on the College of Pittsburgh, there are advanced analyses nonetheless to be carried out 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 sport night time, eating places and bars like Igor’s could be even “extra of the catastrophe situation,” 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 seemingly environments wealthy for spreading the virus as properly. He believes that whereas the match itself may properly have been an “accelerant” in Bergamo’s deterioration, it was “not the one mass occasion that might have influenced the scenario.”
What is for certain is the unfold. Twenty % of the folks from Bergamo who attend the match within the San Siro finally present signs of COVID-19 inside just a few weeks, in accordance with one research. That features Fabio. His fever is excessive however, fortuitously, his signs don’t grow to be dire. As he recovers in isolation, he follows the anguish on his telephone.
Each morning, he says, he wakes up and checks a bunch textual content with pals 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 mum or dad or in-law or uncle or aunt.
Igor, the restaurant proprietor, turns into unwell, too. His signs are extra critical. An ambulance involves his home as a result of he can’t totally 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 continually sick folks coming in,” Igor says, “sick folks scattered in every single place and the factor that made you …”
His voice catches proper then, his eyes instantly moist. He feels it occurring yet again. He takes just a few beats, sniffling, attempting to assemble himself. Then he describes the anguish of what he noticed:
Individuals 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 principally 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 overall 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. The way to care for his household and himself. How to not be afraid.
The restoration is figure, Igor says, and that’s finally 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 set up. They volunteer the 1000’s. 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. Via lockdowns and quarantines, college closings and enterprise restrictions, 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, reproduction jersey and two bottles of system to the household of each single child born in Bergamo and surrounding areas. The thought behind it was easy: Round right here, rooting for Atalanta is nothing lower than a birthright.
“The connection between the town and the soccer group is stronger than some other scenario I’ve seen,” says Gori. “It’s a whole 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 throughout 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 sport, Atalanta loses to famous person Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain within the Champions League quarterfinals in an in depth sport. Some surprise if this would be the finish of the fairy story for Atalanta, however after a (very) quick 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 targets in its first eight matches. It pulls off an upset of Liverpool, the English juggernaut, in a Champions League group stage match.
There are not 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. For the reason that broadcasts are a lot quieter with out crowd noise, he can generally 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 practically 700,000 euros throughout this disaster, however his religion in Bergamo has no means wavered. Because the restrictions raise, he says, he’s considering of opening a second location. “It might be good to have a full bar and eat a variety of Hipster burgers,” he says.
One factor you do not hear fairly often from Bergamaschi is a want to “get again to regular.” There is no such thing as a such factor. Not right here. Not in a spot that has misplaced a lot. Almost 28,000 have died in Lombardy, the area that incorporates 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, going through a Spanish group 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 normal.
There is not going to be a full stadium that night time, and even as soon as there’s on some future night time, it will likely be unattainable for it to really feel the identical. The love for Atalanta won’t waver, however that does not imply it will possibly’t change.
So, when the stadium lastly opens to the general public once more, in fact they’ll go. Igor, Andrea, Dr. Marinoni — even Mayor Gori and his son. Nevertheless it is not going to 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 is not going to see all of the faces he had seen for thus a few years earlier than. The losses are in every single place. “Diego, Bruno, Evan, Marco,” he says. These are simply 4 of the names he mourns.
“Will probably be powerful,” Fabio says of going again to the stadium. “Robust, but additionally pleased. Completely satisfied as a result of we have to be pleased. Completely satisfied as a result of we will probably be there and we’ll bear in mind them.”
It’s the solely alternative. They may chant, Fabio says. They may shout. They may sing “Viaggiare per l’Italia Seguendo Te,” shouting the phrases out collectively, nevertheless far aside they should be to make it secure. They may 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.