One year after ‘Game Zero’ Bergamo finds joy in Atalanta

IT IS MATCH NIGHT in Bergamo, Italy. The local soccer team, Atalanta, is playing an important game in the Coppa Italia against Lazio, a team from Rome. Atalanta’s stadium sits in a neighborhood alongside the Citta Alta, the upper city, the historic part of Bergamo ringed by Venetian plaster walls from the 16th century. The floodlights twinkle, glittering in a cold January sky.

Down the hill, there is a bar. It has dark wood paneling and long, rectangular tables. The bar is named Hog, short for hedgehog. The menu at Hog features a cartoonish animal with playful eyes drawn on its cover.

The owner, Igor Prussiani, is a local, a true Bergamasco. He is from Longuelo, the neighborhood next to his bar. He loves Atalanta. He loves its players and its coaches. He loves its songs and chants. Mostly, though, he loves how it represents the dogged determination of his city. Nearby Milan may be the fashion capital of the world, but Bergamo is blue-collar, Igor says, and Bergamaschi know how to work, how to sweat, how to toil. On the inside collar of Atalanta’s jerseys the phrase “La maglia sudata sempre” is written. Roughly translated, it means, “The shirt is always wet.”

On Atalanta match nights, Hog overflows with people. It has beer taps that hang from the ceiling. It has a list of original hamburgers, including the “Hipster,” which features half a pound of beef, an artisanal bun, egg, cheese, bacon, onions and barbecue sauce. It is a meal that stays with you for days. The Hipster is so adored it is normally made in batches, then delivered to the hundreds of customers crammed into the tables in the dining room. During games, the singing never stops at Hog except for when Atalanta scores and everyone shrieks in ecstasy.

Those moments — the seconds of sheer pandemonium when the place erupts — are why Igor opened Hog.

“The best feeling,” he says, “is when you see the people explode. When you see the people with their hearts in their hands.”

He looks around. Hog is empty tonight. In COVID-19 times, Igor explains, only takeout is allowed. There is no music, no buzz. No screaming. A few lonely patties sizzle on the grill in the back.

Atalanta’s fans watch their team beat Lazio from home. Igor watches from his restaurant. It is how it has been for months, through lockdowns and quarantines and, of course, the staggering coronavirus death toll that this city has endured. You might think the pandemic began in the Western world with Rudy Gobert and the NBA shutting down on March 11; you might think that was the tipping point. It wasn’t. It was in Bergamo, where three weeks earlier, everyone went to sleep thinking they had just experienced the best day of their lives and woke up to a nightmare.

And yet still, hope abides here, even after so much heartbreak. No one knows when, Igor says, but soon the Bergamaschi will sing in the stadium again. Crowd into bars and hug and cheer again. Be together again. Soon they will do those ordinary things again, those everyday-life things that suddenly went from being acts of comfort to acts of danger.

A year ago, it was like that, Igor says. A year ago, it was glorious. So now, when Atalanta takes the field on a match night in Bergamo and the future feels like it might finally be inching just a little bit closer, it is impossible for Bergamaschi like Igor not to think of the match night, one year ago. The one from last February just before all of this began.

Atalanta played that night. The fans sang that night. Hog was packed that night.

Life then, Igor says, was normal.

THEY REMEMBER IT like this: It is Feb. 19, 2020, and Igor opens his bar for lunch. There is a decent rush in the afternoon, but the dining room really starts filling around dinner. Igor has had reservations on every table in the place for months. Atalanta is playing in the Champions League round of 16. For a small team whose only significant trophy came in 1963, Atalanta’s game against Spanish club Valencia, a two-time finalist in the competition, is something historic.

The game itself is in Milan, about 40 miles down the road. Atalanta’s stadium is tiny and built in 1928. It hasn’t been modernized to Champions League standards. So Atalanta plays Valencia in the famed San Siro instead, one of soccer’s grandest stages.

The city of Bergamo’s entire population is only 125,000, but some 40,000 Atalanta fans make the trip. Those who don’t go to watch in person pack into bars like Igor’s; those who do find plenty of company on the road. Normally, it takes 45 minutes to drive to Milan; on this night, the ride from Bergamo takes up to three hours.

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Fabio Piana arrives in Milan by about 5 p.m., or roughly four hours before kickoff. Fabio grew up in Bergamo like Igor, and his childhood home was only 200 yards from the stadium. Fabio distinctly remembers being about 5 years old and asking his father on a Sunday, “Papa, why are so many people in the street?” His father simply pointed to the Curva Nord, the north side of the stadium where the most intense fans would always stand. It was instant love. Fabio, now in his late 40s, has been standing in the Curva Nord on match days for decades. His catalogue of Atalanta memories runs deep, the sort of guy who goes chapter and verse on 2-2 draws with AC Milan in 1983.

Fabio and his friends walk to the San Siro from the café where they have been drinking and singing. Scores of Atalanta fans arrive on the dozens of buses that come from Bergamo. Others drive or take the train, and get to the ground on Milan’s subways or taxis. Inside the San Siro, the fans stand shoulder to shoulder, shouting the words to “Viaggiare per l’Italia Seguendo Te,” or “Traveling Across Italy Following You.”

“I live to love you / and will never betray you,” they chant. “And with my heart in my throat / I’ll sing for you. Ale, Atalanta!”

The mood is delirious. Everyone is smiling and laughing and shouting. Strangers throw their arms over each other’s shoulders. It is a festa, a party. Children of all ages are in the crowd too, despite the late hour, including a little boy named Edoardo, whose father posts on social media the note he wrote to his son’s school informing them that Edoardo would be absent all day for “cultural-historical” reasons. “He will be experiencing a day in the history books of Bergamo along with his dad,” the note says, and even the mayor of Bergamo, Giorgio Gori, retweets it with an approving message and the hashtag #GoAtalantaGo.

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The ESPN FC panel preview Atalanta’s Champions League tie vs. Real Madrid on Wednesday.

Gori is at the game, too, sitting with his son. The mayor had a full day at work, including meeting with Paolo Gentiloni, the former prime minister of Italy, but by 6:30 p.m. he was out the door, in the car and on the way to Milan like everyone else. Gori’s son is 23 and finishing up at the University of Siena, but Atalanta keeps them close as they live apart. “That game,” Gori says, sounding like a proud father, “was a moment of extraordinary union between us on a personal and emotional level.”

The match itself is euphoric. To advance to the quarterfinals, Atalanta needs to score more goals than Valencia over two legs, one match in Italy and then another in Spain. With 180 minutes of soccer to be played, it takes barely a quarter-hour for Atalanta, the biggest of interlopers, to show that it belongs. Hans Hateboer, a Dutch defender, opens the scoring and the shock in the stands mixes with rapture. Then Josip Ilicic scores. And Remo Freuler. Then Hateboer scores again and suddenly it feels as though the San Siro stadium might lift off the ground.

The Atalanta fans are incandescent. Four goals? In the Champions League? For us? This is a team whose total payroll is less than what Cristiano Ronaldo makes himself. This is a team that wasn’t even in Italy’s top division as recently as 2011. This is a team that had nearly 100-to-1 odds to win the tournament at the start and didn’t crack the first page of most oddsmakers’ betting sheets.

Now, Atalanta is soccer’s feel-good story, the fearless upstart whose fans have no interest in simply being happy to be here. Fabio barely even sees the third and fourth goals go in the net because there is so much bouncing and chanting and shouting and beer flying all over the area where he is standing, the Bergamaschi crushed in so tightly it is as if they share a face.

The final score is 4-1 and, as he leaves the stadium that night with his son, Gori, the mayor, is already planning what to do for the second leg. The atmosphere inside the stadium was incredible, Gori thinks, so wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a big screen set up in the middle of Bergamo for the return match in a few weeks’ time?

Everyone could come together again, Gori thinks. Another festa, this time in the city’s main square. It would be magnificent.

IT IS IMPORTANT, at this point, to repeat: This was Feb. 19. So while now we are inured to the frantic pace of coronavirus news, at that moment it was still something new, something foreign. Should there have been an inkling? Maybe. But it is only human to look away from something scary for as long as possible, to imagine, to hope, it won’t come near.

On Feb. 19, the people of Bergamo see the virus as something in China, telling each other, “OK, it’s 15,000 kilometers away from here and that’s not our business,” says Andrea Losapio, a journalist who has covered Atalanta for years. On Italian television on Feb. 19, Andrea says, the ratio of news stories about Atalanta in the Champions League to stories about the coronavirus is “at least 10 to 1.”

That ratio, obviously, flips fairly quickly in the aftermath of the game, and Gori does not hesitate to say that “the week following the game was one of the strangest weeks of my life.” On Feb. 20 — the day after the match — Gori learns of the first reported COVID-19 case in a nearby town. On Feb. 21, 14 more positives are reported in the Lombardy region, including the doctor who was treating one of those initial cases. On Feb. 23, the first two cases in Bergamo are identified.

“Then every day?” Gori says. “More and more.”

At first, Gori and other Bergamo officials are unfazed. They continue with discussions about the outdoor watch party for the next Atalanta game.

Then on March 5, Gori checks his email at 11 p.m. and sees a note from a regional public health official whom he does not know: “Mayor I have to explain what’s really happening — you have to realize what’s really going on.”

Late at night, nearly ready for bed, Gori feels chills as he reads in this email about exponential spread and a possible shortage of PPE and the potential for hospitals to be crippled by overwhelming demand. Within weeks, it all happens, just as predicted. Rising positives. Resource issues. Overflowing hospitals.

By March 24 — about a month after the game — nearly 7,000 people in Bergamo have tested positive and more than 1,000 are dead. On March 27, The New York Times publishes a story detailing Bergamo’s devastation as, essentially, the first city outside of Asia to be completely enveloped by COVID-19. The headline quotes a local funeral director: “We Take the Dead from Morning Till Night.” One local newspaper is overwhelmed by death notices.

The significance of the Atalanta-Valencia game in spreading the coronavirus in Bergamo quickly becomes a divisive point. Fabio, the fan who grew up just a few hundred yards from the stadium, says that early on, some “people from Italy look at us like bad people, like the people that go around and spread the virus.” A pulmonologist in Bergamo is quoted in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera describing the Atalanta-Valencia game — with 40,000 people together in the stands — as “a biological bomb.”

Amidst all the fear and loss, that sort of description gains traction. Some see the match as a symbol for what has gone wrong in Bergamo, if not its primary symptom. The Associated Press publishes an article labeling the Atalanta-Valencia match as “Game Zero.” More than a third of Valencia’s team and staff turn up with positive tests after returning home, and the second leg is played at an empty stadium.

The science is complicated, and not entirely definitive. According to Dr. Seema Lakdawala, an expert who studies the transmission of viruses at the University of Pittsburgh, there are complex analyses still to be done on aerosol dispersion patterns in an outdoor environment. Fans jumping all over each other at the San Siro, she says, poses a risk of transmission, but in her opinion, on a game night, restaurants and bars like Igor’s would be even “more of the disaster scenario,” because “every time you talk, breathe [and] shout, you’re expelling viruses and aerosols … [which] are going to stay in the air for longer, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.”

Dr. Guido Marinoni, a longtime family doctor in Bergamo and president of the province’s medical association, says the buses and trains and subways that Atalanta fans took — again, indoor, contained spaces — were likely environments rich for spreading the virus as well. He believes that while the match itself might well have been an “accelerant” in Bergamo’s deterioration, it was “not the only mass event that could have influenced the situation.”

What is certain is the spread. Twenty percent of the people from Bergamo who attend the match in the San Siro ultimately show symptoms of COVID-19 within a few weeks, according to one study. That includes Fabio. His fever is high but, fortunately, his symptoms do not become dire. As he recovers in isolation, he follows the anguish on his phone.

Every morning, he says, he wakes up and checks a group text with friends from Bergamo. And every morning for 16 straight days, he says, “I was obliged to make condolences to someone” for the death of a parent or in-law or uncle or aunt.

Igor, the restaurant owner, becomes ill, too. His symptoms are more serious. An ambulance comes to his house because he cannot fully inhale. He is taken to a Bergamo hospital, but it is full. He stays there only one night, then is intubated and transferred to a Milan hospital where a bed is available. He is placed in a ward for emergency cases.

“There were constantly sick people coming in,” Igor says, “sick people scattered everywhere and the thing that made you …”

His voice catches right then, his eyes suddenly moist. He feels it happening all over again. He takes a few beats, sniffling, trying to gather himself. Then he describes the anguish of what he saw:

People on stretchers all around him, prone and trembling, reaching their hands up above them, their arms thrashing. They were so desperate, he says, it was as if they were trying to claw the air into their lungs with their own fingers. “They couldn’t breathe,” Igor says finally. “I saw them basically taking their last breaths. So many people on those stretchers with just white covers on them.”

Igor spends one month in the hospital — two weeks of it in intensive care — before being released, and he knows he is one of the lucky ones. But that timeframe is just a physical one; the total recovery, of course, stretches much wider and deeper. Even once he can breathe again, Igor has to figure out how to save his restaurant. How to take care of his family and himself. How not to be afraid.

The recovery is work, Igor says, and that is ultimately what Gori, the mayor, points to as his city’s salvation. The work. Even amidst an unprecedented crisis, Gori says, Bergamaschi are always able to fall back on the thing they know best. They organize. They volunteer by the thousands. They distribute masks. They deliver groceries and medicines to seniors. They build, within weeks, a makeshift hospital in Bergamo’s fairgrounds to help ease the overload.

They work. Through lockdowns and quarantines, through school closings and business restrictions, through spikes and valleys in infection rates, they work. They work to hold their city together.

IN 2010, ATALANTA began a program to send a tiny, replica jersey and two bottles of formula to the family of every single baby born in Bergamo and surrounding areas. The idea behind it was simple: Around here, rooting for Atalanta is nothing less than a birthright.

“The relationship between the city and the soccer team is stronger than any other situation I’ve seen,” says Gori. “It is a total commitment, a total identification.”

That is why, Gori says, it is not some politician’s bromide for him to point to Atalanta as a “rainbow” for his city during the pandemic, a beacon that both distracts from the awful present and, as he puts it, “suggests a better future.”

In August, more than five months after the Valencia game, Atalanta loses to superstar Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarterfinals in a close game. Some wonder if this will be the end of the fairy tale for Atalanta, but after a (very) short summer break, Atalanta picks up the new season just as it left the old. It wins its first three games. It scores 23 goals in its first eight matches. It pulls off an upset of Liverpool, the English juggernaut, in a Champions League group stage match.

There are no sold-out stadiums, of course, no singing and chanting, but there are still the matches, still the connection. Fabio, who lives in New York now for his work, watches on his computer. Since the broadcasts are much quieter without crowd noise, he can sometimes hear the bells of the church located right near the stadium. That was his church growing up, he says. It reminds him of home.

Igor watches, too, and talks with other restaurant owners about when, finally, the COVID-19 vaccine will be so widespread that he might open Hog’s doors again. He has lost nearly 700,000 euros during this crisis, but his faith in Bergamo has never wavered. As the restrictions lift, he says, he is thinking of opening a second location. “It would be nice to have a full bar and eat a lot of Hipster burgers,” he says.

One thing you don’t hear very often from Bergamaschi is a desire to “get back to normal.” There is no such thing. Not here. Not in a place that has lost so much. Nearly 28,000 have died in Lombardy, the region that contains Bergamo. Too much has happened to this city, to these people, for there to be a return — a resumption — of anything.

Next week, Atalanta will play in a Champions League knockout round again, facing a Spanish team again. This time it is Real Madrid, one of the titans of Europe. The game will even be in Atalanta’s own stadium; enough improvements have been made that the old place is now up to standard.

There will not be a full stadium that night, and even once there is on some future night, it will be impossible for it to feel the same. The love for Atalanta might not waver, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

So, when the stadium finally opens to the public again, of course they will go. Igor, Andrea, Dr. Marinoni — even Mayor Gori and his son. But it will not be like it was before. There will be holes. Fabio will stand in the Curva Nord again, but when he looks to the side or behind him or down the row, he will not see all the faces he had seen for so many years before. The losses are everywhere. “Diego, Bruno, Evan, Marco,” he says. Those are just four of the names he mourns.

“It will be tough,” Fabio says of going back to the stadium. “Tough, but also happy. Happy because we need to be happy. Happy because we will be there and we will remember them.”

It is the only choice. They will chant, Fabio says. They will shout. They will sing “Viaggiare per l’Italia Seguendo Te,” shouting the words out together, however far apart they have to be to make it safe. They will sing as loud as it takes to make up for those who can’t sing with them.

Near or distanced, with a mask or without, a Bergamasco’s love for Atalanta is unbreakable. The shirt is always wet.

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