or two months, the wailing of ambulances cut into Bergamo’s soul. It knew no difference between bleak days and dark, tortured nights that came to seem endless. “The constant noise, you had to kill it in some ways, it was getting in your mind,” Franz Barcella says. “The news on television looked nothing like as bad as what those noises will tell you. You had fear, but it was more than fear for yourself.”
The cruelty of what had hit Bergamo, which became the centre of Europe’s worst Covid-19 outbreak in March, was hard to reconcile. So was the spectrum of emotions when, on 10 March,Atalanta beat Valencia to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The last-16 second leg was being played behind closed doors in Spain, with the extent of the disaster now becoming clear. Alberto Savi watched at home as Josip Ilicic swept in the team’s, and his own, fourth goal of a night that should have been the stuff of unfettered fantasy. The television commentators balanced their own incredulity by reminding Bergamo’s citizens to resist any urge to convene on the streets.
“Nobody went outside,” Savi says. “It was quite strange. You’d imagine there would be a big celebration. But there was only silence, and sirens moving through the town.”
Barcella remembers a strange, awful mental conflict. “From one side you have the highest moment of your football team, probably a point we will never reach again. On the other side you have the darkest hour of your city. It’s a complex mix of feelings. But in that moment, if I can be honest, the sense was of sadness.”
The sirens are more or less silent now but, on Wednesday, the dualism will rear up again. Atalanta are Bergamo’s pride and joy; they are “La Dea”, a 112-year-old institution hard-wired into the city’s every aspect. If they beat Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon the records will show that they are one of Europe’s four best teams; so will the visual evidence, given the intoxicating attacking football produced by Gian Piero Gasperini’s team. Outside Edone, the bar and cultural centre Barcella co-runs, a giant screen will be up and everyone will wait: first, for the result; second, to see how far, if at all, football can succeed in healing the agony of an estimated 3,000 deaths around the city, and 17,000 in the Lombardy region.
In one sense it has already helped. A mile to the city’s south-east, Dr Oliviero Valoti is standing in the centre of what, in happier times, the Bergamaschi know as its “Fiera” – an exhibition and trade centre. Above his head are signs pointing towards bars and other refreshment areas. At ground level there is the stark, silently apocalyptic sight of beds, ventilators and maze of screens separating six ad-hoc intensive care units. From 8 April this became the “red zone” of an emergency field hospital created to alleviate the enormous, devastating load placed on Bergamo’s main Ospedale Papa Giovanni XIII. The Fiera was completely repurposed after 10 days’ work, overseen by emergency and the medical corps of Italy’s Alpini mountain troops. Scores of volunteers helped, the majority of whom were recruited from among the ultras in Atalanta’s famed Curva Nord.
“You’d see these people wearing an Atalanta jersey, running around from left to right, transporting materials and setting up panels to divide different departments,” Valoti says. “People with tears in their eyes as they worked, trying to take the smallest amount of time possible but while still doing everything perfectly, not just quickly.
“We all found ourselves in the same boat. Shoulder to shoulder, fighting the same enemy. I think it can be described with a single word: emotion. The idea of working here in Atalanta’s colours was really emotional.”
While in Bergamo we met local artist Cabot Cove. We joined him and a group of supporters to plaster his posters of Josip Ilicič around the city. The @Atalanta_BC striker has been going through a rough period as of late, and hasn’t returned to football since the lockdown. pic.twitter.com/lebCaBuZrq
Valoti, a lifelong Atalanta fan, was in charge of overseeing the field hospital’s operations. Nowadays it operates on a surgery-like basis, performing follow-up checks on many of the thousands who were hospitalised locally. Around 150 patients eventually passed through here at a relatively late stage in the pandemic’s peak, and all bar one were saved. He lists some of the fans’ numerous fundraising initiatives and describes how Atalanta – who partly funded the ventilators – lent their own medical professionals to help out. Staff would work 10-hour shifts here; they are heroes and so is Valoti. His feelings, upon standing in a building now silent except for the hum of electricity generators, are “difficult to control”. While Ilicic was outclassing Valencia, Valoti himself was ill with coronavirus; the experience told him that, while the joy may be suppressed, anything Atalanta achieve now can only help make things better.
“That night in particular I remember well, because I was really sick,” he says. “Seeing the team win, watching the game on the couch, was the best therapy. So I think their results, for the people of Bergamo who lived through this tragedy, are a really important cure.
“At the moment the pressure of this epidemic began to decline, the psychological pressure reduced. But you saw the emergence of stress, depression … we registered a high number of suicides, even of young people. Perhaps the lockdown, the isolation, was a factor. So I think for those who have a passion for football, and put their heart into it, it certainly gives a bit of energy and relief.”
In front of Valoti is a partition displaying pictures drawn by local schoolchildren. One of them, by a boy called Cristian, is captioned: “Forza Atalanta, Dea … Guarite Presto [get well soon].” It depicts a Champions League football surrounded by eight colourful, smiling faces, linked by outstretched arms. If Atalanta is the centre of Bergamo’s universe then it is no surprise that, when everything around looked like caving in, its practical and emotional goodwill radiated. “Somehow, through this spirit of community and hard work, of never giving up, Bergamo became a symbol of resilience,” Barcella says.
Atalanta, steeped in the whip-smart ownership of the footballer-turned-entrepreneur Antonio Percassi, reflect that and so do today’s players. Ilicic, Duvan Zapata, Papu Gómez, Marten de Roon and the rest are more attached to the city than any of their predecessors, even though they are stars now and only two of the squad were born locally. They come from 14 countries but none of them left Bergamo during lockdown; the trauma was more than a piece of distant bad news.
“It was a crazy few months,” says De Roon, the former Middlesbrough midfielder. “I live in the centre and for five weeks there was no movement at all, no life on the streets. I looked high up to the old city, and low down; both sides were like an abandoned city.
“But this city is so connected with the team. Everybody in Bergamo is linked with Atalanta. We’re the ones who can give joy, give something back to people; it’s all connected and if Atalanta plays nice football it helps to build up the city. We have players who have reached levels here that they never did before, growing with the club. You get a bond with the place, and you feel at home.”
That partly explains why, in the early hours of last Tuesday morning, Barcella could be found among a group of supporters emblazoning giant posters backing Ilicic in five areas of the city. Ilicic will not face PSG for personal reasons, perhaps linked to the lockdown but perhaps not, and the concern was neighbourly beyond anything else. Savi saw some of them the next day. “We care about the person, the feeling of the player,” he says. “And after the situation we have had here, that is now even stronger.”
De Roon says recent months “give us extra motivation”. Valoti describes a WhatsApp conversation in June with Gómez, the brilliant captain, asking how he had found the team’s return to training. “I’m devastated,” Gómez replied, referring to the physical and mental strain to which he had submitted himself in searing heat, tossing over the rawest of memories. “This tragedy certainly pushed them to achieve much more than they could have,” says Valoti of the players, who won nine of their 13 Serie A games after restarting. “I’m sure of it.”
In allowing itself even the possibility to enjoy what should never have been achievable on the football pitch for a provincial city of 122,000, Bergamo might have exceeded its own expectations, too. Daniele Filisetti, a successful centre-back in Serie B with Atalanta before moving to Lazio in 1983, was another who contracted Covid-19. He says it “reduced my lungs to mush” and that his health as a footballer aided his recovery. “It was a slaughter,” he says. “We realised something was happening, but we didn’t immediately realise how terrible it was.”
It was virtually impossible to, which is why most locals – including Valoti –play down the significance of the home leg with Valencia, played at San Siro in Milan, in which 44,236 fans delighted in a 4-1 win two days before the first significant cluster of cases was confirmed in Lombardy. “It gives me a bit of regret because we didn’t have the foresight,” Valoti says. “But there had been no evidence of a growth in contagion, so we didn’t have this sensation of worry.”
There will inevitably be self-consciousness in the revelling if PSG are Atalanta’s latest scalp, but perhaps it will be accompanied by the revelation that tragedy and beauty can, in complicated and heart-rending ways, walk hand in hand. “A lot of people say football can heal the suffering, and I don’t see it like that,” Barcella says. “But this team are playing with sorrow and pain in their hearts, and with audacity in their eyes. It reflects what the city is doing. Every one of us, whatever your job is, we do the same.”
Copa90’s documentary, “Triumph through tragedy | Bergamo, Atalanta and a European dream” will be released on the Copa90 Stories YouTube channel on 18 August.