Experts link Champions League game to Italy's coronavirus outbreak: 'A biological bomb'

As the American sports community struggled with how to handle COVID-19 and ultimately decided to shut things down, Italy was in the early stages of an outbreak linked to a soccer game.

The lessons learned there demonstrate the consequences of not shutting sports down.

Northern Italy is the epicenter of one of the world’s worst coronavirus clusters. Officials are looking back to a Feb. 19 Champions League game between Atalanta and Spain’s Valencia in Milan as a catalyst.

What happened on Feb. 19

Atalanta plays in Bergamo, a small city in Northern Italy. Its home stadium seats around 21,000 people and didn’t meet UEFA’s standards for the high-profile game. So the team hosted the game at Milan’s San Siro Stadium, which seats more than 40,000 people.

According to the Associated Press, more than 40,000 Bergamo residents made the 37-mile road trip to Milan that day as the coronavirus was on the fringes of Italy’s radar, having not made its presence felt yet in Western Europe.

[ Coronavirus: How the sports world is responding to the pandemic ]

Fans mingled, celebrated and hugged as Atalanta secured a 4-1 victory in the first leg of a series that saw the team advance to the Champions League quarterfinal. They eventually traveled home, many in tightly packed public transportation vehicles.

Now the city of around 120,000 people has 7,000 coronavirus cases with 1,000 confirmed deaths. According to AP, that makes Bergamo the epicenter of the most deadly outbreak of coronavirus in Italy.

‘A biological bomb’

Many are pointing the Feb. 19 Champions League game as the reason why, Fabiano di Marco included. Di Marco is the chief pneumologist at Bergamo’s hospital.

“I have heard a lot (of theories), I’ll say mine: Feb. 19, 40,000 Bergamaschi went to San Siro for Atalanta-Valencia,” di Marco told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “In buses, cars, trains. A biological bomb, unfortunately.”

A cause for celebration in Italy is now being pegged as the catalyst for a deadly outbreak. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
A cause for celebration in Italy is now being pegged as the catalyst for a deadly outbreak. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Italians didn’t know what had hit them

Social distancing wasn’t a thing in Italy at that point. COVID-19 was a problem on foreign soil. Restrictive but effective measures taken in countries like South Korea and China were a foreign concept for Western cultures, especially in a city that didn’t even realize coronavirus had arrived.

But it had. Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori spoke recently with reporters on a Facebook chat about his city’s ignorance of the virus’ presence.

“We were mid-February so we didn’t have the circumstances of what was happening,” Gori said, per AP. “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. It was inevitable.”

‘Game Zero’

Two days after the game dubbed by local media as “Game Zero” took place, the first case of coronavirus in Italy was confirmed. By March 9, the entire country had suspended all sporting events as part of a larger social shutdown ordered by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

“We also have more stringent measures in mind for sporting events,” Conte said. “Serie A and all sporting tournaments in general are suspended. All the fans must accept that.”

Restrictive social measures foreign to most Western sensibilities were all of a sudden reality. The alternative was continued growth of the deadly contagion.

The numbers

As of Tuesday, Italy claimed 70,000 of the world’s 435,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the most of any country in Europe, according to AP. The country’s 7,000 deaths are more than any other in the world — China and its population of nearly 1.4 billion people included.

Valencia, which saw 2,500 fans travel to Italy for the game, now has 2,600 confirmed cases.

Luca Lorini, the head of the intensive care unit at Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo, anticipates a postmortem of the game and the spread of the virus after the region is removed from its current crisis mode.

“I’m sure that 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimeter apart — four times, because Atalanta scored four goals — was definitely a huge accelerator for contagion,” Lorini told AP on Wednesday.

“Right now we’re at war. When peace time comes, I can assure you we will go and see how many of the 40,000 people who went to the game became infected.”

What does this mean for the United States?

Meanwhile the United States grapples with what social measures need to be taken to thwart the expansion of its own coronavirus outbreak.

The unheard of stoppage of sporting events in the U.S. started on March 12 with the suspension of the NBA season. The NCAA tournament and MLB followed suit along with most other U.S. sporting events. Bergamo’s experience appears to be a prime example of why those were the correct decisions.

Since then, social gatherings have been ordered shut down by states and municipalities across the country. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cited strict social distancing measures on Wednesday for slowing the growth of the virus in his state, which now has more than 30,000 known cases.

The pandemic will escalate before things get better in the United States. But the Bergamo experience indicates that the extraordinary actions of U.S. sports leaders helped prevent the outbreak from being much worse.

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