The Dark Fairy Tale of Atalanta

BERGAMO, Italy — Giorgio Gori still smiles at the memory of that night. He was sitting with his son high in the stands, watching the unimaginable unfold. The party seemed to bubble up beneath them, gathering force until it consumed them, too. “Four goals? Against Valencia? At San Siro?” he said. He phrased them as questions, as if he just needed to check what he had seen was real.

It was hard to believe it was happening at the time. It is even harder to believe it happened now.

That day was, possibly, the proudest in the modest history of Atalanta. A great tide had made the short journey from Bergamo, the prosperous, pretty city where the soccer team is based, to Milan for the first leg of their Champions League, round-of-16 tie against Valencia. Atalanta had never breathed such rarefied air. It had, in truth, scarcely even contemplated it.

The whole town, it seemed, had been transplanted for the night. Alessandro Pezzotta, a fan who organizes buses for away games, had arranged 10 coaches. They were all full, 600 people in all. That was just a fraction of the exodus. “There were 120 coaches in all, I think,” he said. “The traffic just never seemed to stop coming.”

As Bergamo’s mayor, Gori and his son had been invited to watch the game in the directors box. Typically, the atmosphere among the executives is a little more restrained than it is in the stands, but that night was different.

As Atalanta raced to a four-goal lead, its first place in the Champions League quarterfinals suddenly in sight, worries about decorum started to dissipate. “We were hugging as much as if we had been stood on the curva,” he said, as Italians call the ends of the stadium where the most devoted fans gather. After the game, he texted Gian Piero Gasperini, the manager who had brought Atalanta here, to congratulate him.

Credit…Miguel Medina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Credit…Alessandro Rota for The New York Times

Bergamo is a small, provincial place, and for much of its 113-year history, Atalanta has been a small, provincial team. Since Gasperini’s arrival, though, its horizons have expanded. Even in the chronically unequal financial landscape of elite European soccer, it has found a way to compete with — and often beat — teams with vastly deeper pockets.

Still, for Atalanta to find itself on the cusp of a place in the final eight of the Champions League, ordinarily the preserve of the continent’s impossibly wealthy elite, defied soccer’s economics. Pezzotta regards that night — Feb. 19, 2020 — as the apex of a lifetime spent supporting the team.

The next day, the mayor was in his office in the center of Bergamo when news started to emerge that a patient in an emergency room in Codogno, a town southeast of Milan and about an hour’s drive away, had tested positive for the coronavirus. The next day, a second case was confirmed in Alzano Lombardo, only a few minutes outside Bergamo.

In those long, harrowing days in late February, the coronavirus crisis seemed to bubble around the people of Bergamo, gathering force until it consumed them, too. The city shut down, the silence filled with sirens. The hospitals were overwhelmed. The local newspaper filled with the names of the dead. The army was called in to remove the bodies. Quickly, memories of that night in San Siro seemed to drift and fade, as if it had happened in another world.

“It was the last day of total ignorance,” Gori said. He had stopped smiling. “It was the last day when we did not worry.”

As the pandemic ravaged Italy in general, and the province of Bergamo in particular — Gori, the mayor, sadly noted that his city had become known as the “capital of Covid” — the greatest victory in Atalanta’s history, what had seemed at the time to be a night of joy and wonder, took on a far darker connotation.

Massimo Galli, a virologist at the Sacco Hospital in Milan, had suggested that gathering 40,000 fans together in such proximity had been an “important vector for contagion.” Fabiano Di Marco, the chief pneumologist at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo, where he and his colleagues fought to save as many of the virus’s victims as they could, described it as a “biological bomb.”

In Bergamo, though, nobody held the team — or soccer as a whole — responsible for the unfolding tragedy. Of course, Gori said, it is common sense to assume that “it was certainly an episode that contributed to the acceleration of it: all those people in the same place, whether it was at the stadium or gathering at home or watching it in bars.”

But, he said, nobody could have been expected to have known. “As far as we were concerned, the virus was something that was happening in China,” he said. “It was not what happened that night. That game was the 19th. The first confirmed case was the 20th. The virus was already here.”

Far from blaming Atalanta, in fact, the city drew strength from its team. Gori sees an echo of Barcelona’s status in Catalonia in Atalanta’s role in Bergamo: The team is an expression of, and an outlet for, a broader civic identity.

Credit…Alessandro Rota for The New York Times

“In the last few years, it has started to see itself as a European city,” he said, pointing to the development of Bergamo’s airport and its university. “But identity is more important when you have that international outlook. The colors of the team are a source of security in a global world: You can be a citizen of the world, but you are a fan of Atalanta.”

It is something the club has sought to emphasize, embarking on a scheme in 2018 to send a blue-and-black jersey to the parents of every newborn in the province, encouraging them to raise their children as Atalanta fans, rather than allowing them to be tempted by the glamour and ambition of A.C. Milan or Internazionale.

The pandemic did not weaken that bond; it strengthened it. Atalanta became the framework through which the city responded to the crisis. It was the organized fan networks — from the club’s ultras to groups like Chei de la Coriera, the travel association that Pezzotta runs — that sent out the word to gather at Bergamo’s trade center, the Fiera, to help the military build a field hospital.

It was fans who had started leaving shuttered houses in a locked-down city at 6 a.m., after a call had gone out through WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages and messages to friends of friends, to anyone who might have the experience, the expertise or even just the enthusiasm to help.

It was fans who raised 60,000 euros in donations (more than $70,000) for the Pope John XXIII hospital — the money they would have spent attending the return match in Spain against Valencia, the game that was one of the first in Europe to be held behind closed doors because of the coronavirus — and the ultras who commissioned an artist to produce a jersey thanking the medical staff members for their dedication.

“It was an important donation, but so too is the love that they have shown,” said Maria Beatrice Stasi, the director general of the Pope John XXIII hospital. “It shows the passion and affection not just for the team, but for Bergamo. In a very difficult moment for the city, we have felt that affection. They showed a lot of solidarity.”

In the searing August heat, Bergamo is tentatively opening again. Handfuls of tourists, barely a fraction of the numbers that might have been here in another time, wander the cobbled streets of the city’s upper town.

Shops have strict limits on the number of customers allowed to enter. On the creaking funicular railway that connects to the elegant modern city clustered at the foot of the hill, capacity has been cut from 50 to 10. On the evening passeggiata, almost everyone out for a stroll wears a mask.

Italian flags still flutter from windows and balconies. So, too, does the heart motif that caught on at the height of the pandemic, complete with the last three letters of the city’s name capitalized, a play on the word love: BergAMO. Many, though, have chosen a different way to express support: a flag with a field striped in Atalanta’s Black and Blue, and the words “Grazie, Ragazzi.” Thank you, boys.

Atalanta, like much of the rest of European soccer, returned to the field in June when the pandemic had abated sufficiently to make a return to play feasible. Many of its most ardent fans were against the resumption. In March, Claudio Galimberti, who is known as il Bocia and is the leader of the club’s ultras, wrote to Atalanta’s president urging him not to consent to completing the season.

For others, though, the return was welcome. “Lots of people wanted it shut down, but those two hours during a game, when we had been inside for months, were a relief,” Pezzotta, the fan who organized the bus trips, said. To Fabio Gennari, a journalist who has covered the team for years, the return of Serie A felt like “a push back toward normality.”

Atalanta picked up where it had left off, winning its first six games after the hiatus, including two spectacular comebacks, against Udinese and Lazio. It held Juventus to a draw, then demolished its closest neighbor and fiercest rival, Brescia, 6-2.

Credit…Alessandro Rota for The New York Times
Credit…Alessandro Rota for The New York Times

All of it was accomplished in its signature style: adventurous and attacking and relentless. Gasperini, the manager, does not like to see his players pass the ball sideways, even if it is the sensible option. He wants them to go forward, constantly, to score goals, to entertain. It works. Atalanta, constructed on a relative pittance, its ranks filled with players deemed either afterthoughts or underachievers, finished the league season in third place.

“There is football before Gasperini and football after Gasperini,” Gennari said. He has spent lockdown writing a book with his colleague Andrea Riscassi on Gasperini’s revolution: Its title is “The Atalanta Fairy Tale: Between Dreams and Reality.”

He cannot rule out that its conclusion may yet involve winning the Champions League. That its first opponent in the pared-down tournament in Lisbon is Paris St.-Germain, possibly the world’s richest club, is no reason to be daunted. “They have incredible mental strength, this team,” Gennari said. “They can win. But they have already won, by being there.”

That is how it feels to the city, too. “The suffering of the people mourning for their families cannot be relieved,” said Stasi, the hospital director. “Sport cannot overcome that grief. But for the city as a whole, a city that has suffered a lot, it offers hope.”

To Gori, the mayor, the link is even more direct. Atalanta has always been a symbol for the city. In the last few months, it has served as a flag to rally around. Now, though, it can work as a metaphor for Bergamo, a reminder that it is possible to come back, to overcome the odds, to emerge stronger from a time of struggle.

“The city can find a reason for optimism in the story of Atalanta,” he said. “It can be a sign of the rebirth of the city.

“It is not possible to forget what has happened. It is too close, too painful. Too many families have lost a parent or a brother or a sister. These victims are not statistics: They are each personal stories to a family. But we need to think of what comes after, too. Everyone knows where Bergamo is, for this tragedy. We need to build positive associations. Bergamo can be known for Covid. But it can also be known for Atalanta.”

Credit…Alessandro Rota for The New York Times

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