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3 Apr, 2020 19:41

Going viral: From 'Game Zero' to a 'criminal' Liverpool match, five massive sporting events that could have spread coronavirus

Going viral: From 'Game Zero' to a 'criminal' Liverpool match, five massive sporting events that could have spread coronavirus

The days of huge numbers flocking to watch sport seem a distant memory now, but we might only just be seeing the effects of crowds congregating at stadiums and arenas a few weeks ago. Here are five events that ran the risk.

Football – Atalanta vs Valencia, Italy, February 19

The city of Bergamo has been one of the cities hit hardest by the devastation wreaked in northern Italy, making the memory of the match that attracted 40,000 people to Atalanta's Champions League home in Milan a chilling one.

The hosts’ goals may have exacerbated the problem on what should have gone down as a momentous night courtesy of their 4-1 win over Valencia, with whom around 2,500 fans travelled to the San Siro from virus-hit Spain.


“I’m sure that 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimetre apart four times – because Atalanta scored four goals – was definitely an accelerator for contagion,” said Luca Lorini, the head of intensive care at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo.

“When peacetime comes, I can assure you we will go and see how many of the 40,000 people who went to the game became infected. Right now we have other priorities."

The contagion was reported in Valencia almost simultaneously, and a journalist from Spain who attended the round of 16 first leg duly became the second person to be infected in the region, which is now in one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

Both squads also suffered as a consequence of what has been dubbed “Game Zero” by local media, with more than a third of Valencia’s squad becoming infected and goalkeeper Marco Sportiello providing Atalanta’s first positive case.

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One of Lorini’s colleagues, chief pneumologist Fabiano di Marco, told Corriere della Sera that the game had been “a biological bomb.”

Rugby Union – England vs Wales, England, March 7

England’s Six Nations trip to Italy the following Saturday had already been called off when more than 81,000 people descended on Twickenham, finding the home of the nation’s rugby union team dotted with hand sanitizer dispensers as fears over the impending outbreak increased.


Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister who subsequently enforced the lockdown before testing positive for the virus, was in attendance with his pregnant fiancee, and prop Mako Vunipola was left out of the England squad because of his recent trip through Hong Kong, although his appearance for club side Saracens on the same day underlined the confusion surrounding health measures.

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Lions coach Eddie Jones, who has now taken a pay cut of more than 25% as the Rugby Football Union reels from a projected loss that could exceed $60 million over the next 18 months, is currently stranded in Japan as a result of the pandemic.

His employers suspended all rugby within a fortnight of the narrow victory over Wales, bringing the county championship to a premature end for the first time outside of wartime since its inception in 1889.

Horse racing – Cheltenham Festival, England, March 10-13

Even the most casual followers of news and sport bulletins questioned whether the photos of crowds cramming to watch the key event on the UK horse racing calendar looked wise.

At least 60,000 fans thronged the grandstands on each of the four days of the festival in the small Gloucestershire town, peaking at almost 70,000 for headline race the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday the 13th.


Almost 20,000 enthusiasts are thought to have visited from Ireland, although no deaths have yet been directly linked to the event with the highest attendance of the immediate run-up to the national lockdown, which was implemented four days after the festival finished.

New reports have suggested that former royal family member Andrew Parker Bowles and ex-Premier League footballer Charlie Austin are among those to have reported symptoms of Covid-19 since attending Cheltenham.

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Organizers The Jockey Club have defended the decision to proceed as planned in the unwitting swansong to racing before the sport was suspended until at least the end of April.

“This is a national emergency the like of which most of us have never seen before,” Nick Rust, the head of the British Horseracing Authority, later said.

Football – Liverpool vs Atletico Madrid, England, March 11

Jurgen Klopp was visibly furious with fans who held their hands out in the hope of a high five with him before the Champions League round of 16 second leg which packed more than 52,000 people into Anfield, including thousands from Madrid.

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The severity of the situation was such that the wisdom of letting the match proceed was raised in the UK Parliament, meeting no suggestion from government figures that one of the final games played in England before sport was suspended should not have taken place.

Atletico’s own home matches were taking place behind closed doors as the impact of the virus became more evident in Spain than England at the time, although the 21 deaths in Liverpool from Covid-19 reported yesterday – only one had previously been recorded – suggest the game may have been a contributing factor.

“Some of these deaths certainly fit the timeline from the match,” public health expert Professor John Ashton told the Liverpool Echo.

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Carlo Ancelotti, the manager of the Reds' arch-rivals Everton, has said Klopp remains dumbstruck about the fixture going ahead. “He told me that going ahead with the game in those conditions was a criminal act," Ancelotti told Corriere dello Sport. "I think he was right.”

Basketball – Detroit Pistons vs Philadelphia 76ers, US, March 11

In an unsettling aftermath to a game played in front of more than 20,000 fans, Pistons and Sixers players were unable to face the media at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo centre after the NBA season was suspended while they were still in the locker room.

“We believe in the leadership of the league,” Elton Brand, the general manager of the home side, said after emphasizing that safety was paramount.

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Head coach Brett Brown, who oversaw a 124-106 victory in a game which he admitted had taken a “sensitive” edge following a positive Covid-19 test for a Utah Jazz player on the same day, acknowledged the “very serious” backdrop to the encounter.

"The instruction was to come in and play the game," he pointed out. "If you look at the proactive measures our club has taken, and that the league has taken, I think they should be applauded.”

Fans who did not make the game because of health concerns were offered refunds and ticket exchanges “on a case-by-case basis”, leaving those in attendance to experience their final taste of elite basketball action before the sudden suspension of the sport.

The governing body is now rumoured to be contemplating a condensed, single-site conclusion to the season.

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