BERGAMO, Italy (AP) — Atalanta is playing “with anger in their eyes and pain in their hearts” and that emotion could help propel the team from Bergamo beyond expectations in the Champions League.
The small city of Bergamo was one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. More than 6,000 people died with COVID-19 in the province.
Images of a convoy of military trucks driving coffins out of the city because the crematorium couldn’t keep up were beamed around the world.
Since even before the restart, Atalanta players have talked about bringing the smiles back to the faces of their supporters and it has been one of the top teams since soccer resumed.
“We were one of the cities worst hit by the virus ... and they (the players) experienced all that with us,” said Franz Barcella, an Atalanta season ticket holder and the managing partner at Edoné — a bar and a cultural space near the team’s stadium.
“They are really moving, moving because of what they say, because of what they do, because of the way they play. It really seems as if they are playing with anger in their eyes and pain in their hearts. You can’t but be proud of a team like this.”
Atalanta plays Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. That match and the remainder of the competition will take place in Lisbon.
There won’t be any fans there but Barcella estimates around 400-500 supporters will be in Edoné’s outdoor space, watching the match on a big screen — with all the necessary social distancing measures in place.
Atalanta reached the final eight with an 8-4 aggregate victory over Valencia in the round of 16. The first leg took place on Feb. 19 in Milan and has been dubbed “Game Zero” because of the spread of the disease that followed both in northern Italy and in Spain.
“Look it’s difficult not to know people who were ill in Bergamo. Having said that, to say that it was because of that match is an insult,” said Barcella, who was also ill with the virus. “How many other chances did we have to get sick? There were concerts, other matches, the crowds on public transport ...
“A match wasn’t the cause of the spread. That there were errors made is obvious but saying that Atalanta-Valencia caused everything makes me laugh. There were a thousand causes, not least because as a country we were unprepared.”
Matteo Scarpellini, a warehouseman from Bergamo, was also at that first-leg match in Milan. He knows people who got sick shortly afterwards — including a member of a group of fans who travelled from Austria.
However, he prefers to focus on Atalanta’s 4-1 success that day.
“I remember the party that that day was because it was a historic day for us, probably one of the best ever days, so it annoys us when people identify that match as the start of the virus,” Scarpellini said.
“We’re not stupid, we know it also affected things, but when we talk about that match here in Bergamo we just talk about the match, we don’t talk about what happened after.”
Atalanta secured a second successive season in the Champions League by again finishing third in Serie A, repeating its highest-ever finish from the previous year.
It also set a new club record points tally of 78.
Winning the Champions League would also be historic, not to mention bringing some joy to a city and region that has suffered for months.
When asked if Atalanta could advance, Scarpellini said, “The mind says no but I am a fan so I say yes. All the other teams are stronger than us but I support my team, I want to win, I want to try to win. (PSG forward Kylian) Mbappé costs more than the whole Atalanta team ...
“But soccer needs teams like this. A team like this that plays well, a small team, a story to tell. Maybe we won’t win anything but we will remember this team forever.”