Atalanta coach feared for his life as he fought virus

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini. (AP file photo)
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Updated 31 May 2020

Atalanta coach feared for his life as he fought virus

ROME: When Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini was struggling with the coronavirus in mid-March, the prospect of entering Bergamo’s hospital — which was overflowing with COVID-19 patients at the time —  made him fear for his life.

“Every two minutes an ambulance passed by … It seemed like a war,” Gasperini said. “At night, I would think, ‘If go in there (the hospital), what will happen to me?’”

Fortunately for Gasperini, he quickly recovered and did not have to check into the Pope John XXIII hospital. The coach only recently confirmed that he had the virus when the entire team was tested 10 days ago, he said in an interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport published on Sunday.

The 62-year-old Gasperini started feeling sick on March 9, a day before Atalanta played at Valencia in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16.

He said that when he returned to Bergamo, which was quickly becoming the epicenter of the pandemic, “I didn’t have a fever but I felt destroyed and as if I had a 40-degree (Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit) fever.”

Many experts have pointed to the first leg game between Atalanta and Valencia on Feb. 19 in Milan as one of the biggest reasons why the virus was so deadly in Bergamo. The match has been dubbed “Game Zero” by the local media.

With the virus advancing rapidly across Europe, the second leg in Valencia was played without fans. Still, more than 35% of Valencia’s team became infected.

More than 16,000 people have died from the virus in the Lombardy region containing Bergamo, which has been one of the hardest-hit cities.

“It will take years to really understand what happened,” Gasperini said. “Every time I think about it, it seems absurd: The high point of our sporting (achievement) coincided with the city’s deepest pain.

“I feel more Bergamasco now,” added Gasperini, who is from the Turin area.

Previously the only member of Atalanta who was confirmed as testing positive for the virus was reserve goalkeeper Marco Sportiello.

Atalanta advanced to the quarterfinals on 8-4 aggregate but has not played since then with soccer not due to restart in Italy until mid-June.

“Atalanta can help Bergamo recover, while respecting the pain and those in mourning,” Gasperini said. “It will take time to see people celebrating again in the piazzas or at the airport, but the Bergamaschi keep their fires burning under the ashes.

“There isn’t one player who left the city. More than one of them lost weight, which could also be the sign of psychological issues,” the coach added. “It’s difficult to read everyone’s repressed emotional state. Some of them had their families far away.

“One thing for sure, though, is that the squad remained connected with Bergamo’s suffering and it will bring that out onto the field.”


Man United, Inter favorites for Europa League finale

Updated 10 August 2020

Man United, Inter favorites for Europa League finale

  • All games from the quarterfinals onwards will be played as one-off ties across four venues

PARIS: Manchester United, Inter Milan and Sevilla headline a quintet of former champions traveling to Germany for a remodeled eight-team straight knockout tournament that will crown the winner of a Europa League campaign heavily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

All games from the quarterfinals onwards in this season’s competition will be played behind closed doors as one-off ties across four venues — Cologne, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Gelsenkirchen — following a five-month interruption.

While a Champions League berth still awaits the victor of the final in Cologne on Aug. 21, much has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak that brought European football to a standstill in March.

“There are rules and regulations on the bubble that’s going to travel. We’ve got to stick together, stay together in and around the hotel and the training ground,” United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of the strict health protocols clubs must respect.

Players and staff will undergo virus testing before departing for Germany and again on the eve of a match once arriving, a process repeated for each subsequent game in the final tournament.

UEFA has advised teams to travel on charter flights and minimize contact with the general public, strongly recommending the use of exclusive hotels — to which players will largely be confined — in order to avoid potential cross-contamination.

Masks will not be required for substitutes and coaching staff but they must maintain social distancing when seated, with players instructed to limit contact as much as possible when warming up. Match balls will be disinfected before kickoff and at half-time.

United, the 2017 winners, face FC Copenhagen in Monday’s quarterfinal in Cologne while Serie A runners-up Inter take on Bayer Leverkusen in a clash of former UEFA Cup champions at Dusseldorf Arena.

England forward Jesse Lingard, who played in United’s 2-0 win over Ajax in the final three years ago, is confident the team can capture the title for a second time.

“We can’t wait to get there and play this game now. 100 per cent I want to win it again,” Lingard told MUTV.

“Lifting a trophy is a special feeling you can’t really explain and winning it before you take that confidence forward. We have got a mixture of youth and experience in the squad and for the young lads to win their first trophy, it will be perfect for them.”

Should United advance to the last four they would face either Sevilla — who have won the Europa League and its precursor, the UEFA Cup, a record five times — or Premier League rivals Wolves in Cologne
on Aug. 16.

Wolves are through to a first European quarterfinal since 1972 but were punished by UEFA in midweek after failing to comply with Financial Fair Play requirements. They take on Sevilla in Duisburg on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Inter beat Getafe 2-0 in a single-leg last-16 tie Wednesday in Gelsenkirchen, and Antonio Conte’s men harbor hopes of adding to the three UEFA Cups won in the 1990s.

“This is an important competition. It doesn’t matter where and under what conditions you’re playing, you should only be focused on the upcoming match,” midfielder Christian Eriksen told Inter TV.

“It’s certainly not as fun playing without fans, the atmosphere isn’t there. We’ll try to excite them while they’re watching on TV, and we’re hoping that we’ll be able to embrace our supporters again soon.”

Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk, winners of the 2009 edition, play Swiss outfit Basel in the other quarterfinal in Gelsenkirchen.

This year’s Europa League final was initially due to be played in the Polish city of Gdansk in late May before the health crisis forced a change of plans.

Gdansk will host next year’s final instead.