Just 24 hours after Leeds beat Reading by a single goal at Elland Road I was on my way once again. While waiting to board my flight to Milan, I spotted Andrea Radrizanni, clad in designer wear, on his phone. I was feeling euphoric after a week in which we seemed to have got our season back on track with back-to-back victories and felt eager for an opportunity to catch a moment.
Before long we all made our way onto the waiting aircraft. Just at that point, as the passengers queued, audible chatter turned to the situation concerning the coronavirus in Italy. Until that moment the topic had seemed confined primarily to China, the source of the disease. But here we were, about to take a flight to a city and region that was soon to become the epicentre of the Covid-19 virus in Europe.
I made my way down the aisle of the aircraft and noticed that Radrizanni had pulled his black rollneck above his mouth. Shades on. Other passengers had adopted a similar stance. Maybe there was something in the air, quite literally. On disembarking the bus to passport control, I managed to get in a quick word with our chairman. He was amiable, engaging even. I asked if he wouldn’t mind if I handed over a Leeds badge that had been given to me by a Norwegian White. I told him to take inspiration from the words inscribed: ‘Keep The Faith — Marching on Together’. He smiled and clasped the badge before moving on. After passing through security I was greeted by someone tasked with checking my temperature. Suddenly the situation had become very real.
It soon became apparent that Lombardy, the region in which Milan is located, was struggling to grapple with an upswell in recorded cases of the coronavirus. I soon checked the official numbers and by midday on Sunday February 23rd 132 people had been registered as having been affected by Covid-19, including two deaths, and the number stood at 88 within my region, Lombardy.
By late that evening the President of the Lombardy Region had ordered the closure of all schools and universities, the suspension of educational trips both home and abroad and put in place the suspension of events, of any form, either in a public or private place, and suspended the opening of museums, cinemas and other cultural institutions. The Venice Carnival and Milan fashion week were the two most notable casualties. Other regulations regarding the opening hours of shops, cafes, bars and restaurants were put in place. In addition, Italy’s government set up red zones in Lombardy and Veneto, in which a combined eleven towns were placed in quarantine with no inhabitants allowed to leave. An aggressive response given that Italy recorded its first case on January 31st but only two more by February 20th. A threshold had been reached and the nation’s consciousness alerted.
As a teacher I was required to teach remotely and soon adapted to what was required. But I was amazed to witness people going about their daily lives when visiting Como the following Saturday, Italian cultural norms being routinely followed. Fast forward two weeks and numbers of recorded cases had escalated to 6,387 by midday on Sunday March 8th, with 366 recorded deaths. At this point the nation was put in lockdown and I am now required to carry official documentation allowing me to access food stores or chemists; I risk a fine otherwise. The President has implored the nation’s citizens to act responsibly and stay at home. It is now March 15th and by midday 20,603 cases had been registered, with 1,809 deaths. It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the situation sweeping across the country and continent.
But what impact has this had on a society for whom football is a national sport, the lifeblood of the country? “Soccer is the only form of eternal love that exists in the world,” Italian writer, director, and actor Luciano De Crescenzo said. “He who supports a team will support it forever. He could change his wife, his lover and his political party, but never his favourite team.” Football matters greatly here, but right now, not so much. On implementing the lockdown all organised sporting activities were suspended, including Serie A to D. Sunday, mostly, revolves around football, and time spent with the family. A religion to many, from Udinese in the far north-east of the country to Palermo in Sicily. Separated by more than mere kilometres culturally but bound by a devotion to the beautiful game.
My local team, Serie C side Como 1907, is closely linked to the local community and has a fiercely loyal fanbase. Located on the shore of Lake Como, the picture for the football team was certainly much bleaker after the news that the league will be suspended until April 3rd at the earliest. Twelve games remain of the regular season and it seems highly unlikely that the season will be completed on time on April 26th.
Training sessions at Como have been suspended and each player assigned a personalised training schedule. Negotiations are currently underway between Lega Pro and the Italian Football Association to allow the players twelve days’ vacation, to protect athletes, should league fixtures run into June. But more significantly has been the donation of €100,000 by the Lariano club to the local Sant’Anna Hospital in Como, a combined donation by fans and club. Fans sought to donate monies owed to them for tickets already bought to the hospital with the support of the club. Thoughts here are less about football and more about the welfare of the local community and support for healthcare workers on the frontline.
What does football mean to the people of Como and what now for the club? I obtained the thoughts of Enzo Angiuoni, the former president of Como 1907.
“Football to the fans is more than a game,” he said. “A place where they can all go and stay together to support something they all love. Not being able to do this is really sad and these fans can’t wait until they can begin going to games again.”
Talk inevitably came to the suspension of the league, and that this was the only sensible course of action.
“Suspending the league is the best solution to contain the outbreak of the virus, and players could also get infected easily since they are in contact with each other during games, training, and in the changing rooms. Suspending the league was the best solution to help control the outbreak and for everyone to stay safe.”
He concluded by telling me: “Football for the people of Como is really important. It is part of their life. They can’t wait until the season starts again, and while they’re really sad about the suspension of the league, they all believe that it is the best solution for the whole country, if we are to pass this difficult moment facing Italy.”
Lombardy, the region in which Como is located, is very much the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. The region is considered the economic powerhouse of Italy and accounts for 40% of Italian industrial output. Milan is a key centre for business and commerce and the region also relies heavily on tourism, bordered by the Alps to the north and containing two of Italy’s jewels; Lake Como and Lake Garda. The region’s ten million people have suffered greatly since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak and most economic activities have been paralysed. Other than food stores and chemists all other commercial enterprises, cafes, bars and restaurants have been shut since the lockdown.
To gauge an idea of the gravity of the situation, I spoke to long-time Leeds fan Massimo Poloni. A three-month stint working at the now defunct Milano pizza restaurant in Roundhay Park as a sixteen year old back in 1980 left a huge impression on Massimo and he still gets back to watch Leeds three or four times a year. Hailing from the village of Rovetta, situated 30km north of Bergamo, he is very much aware of the devastating impact of the coronavirus and how nothing else but the welfare of friends and families matters.
“The situation is terrible, no one is around except just a few people each morning who go to buy food before staying at home all day. Six people have tested positive so far and everyone is worried.”
When I asked if his friends had even discussed football, he said, “I haven’t seen much of my friends, but when speaking to them on the phone we spoke more about the health of family and friends, and what we have been doing all day.”
Football is very much woven into the fabric of society here, a point Massimo alluded to.
“We argue about football all week — about a referee, a foul or offside decision. In England once the game is over it is over, although this is now changing with social media, but in Italy we call this ‘unloading the barrel’. Never taking responsibility or admitting one’s own mistakes. But this concerns not only football but life in general.”
Suddenly, everyone has been required to take responsibility. Unlike football, the actions of individuals really could be a matter of life and death.
What of Leeds United and the Championship? On the brink of promotion to the Premier League, it has taken a once in a century pandemic to halt us in our tracks. All jokes aside, very little is known of how the future might play out. All options are on the table and yet, right now, the welfare of the players, staff and fans of Leeds and the wider football community is of greater importance.
I discussed the situation with Gaetano Berardi, a player with more than a vested interest in events engulfing Italy and Lombardy. Gaetano’s immediate family live in Lugano, just across the Italian border in Switzerland, and 80km north-west of Milan. His wife, Erika, has family close to Brescia, to the east of Milan, and both are understandably concerned. Unable to travel, Gaetano’s thoughts are inevitably with his family and friends and their welfare.
The Leeds players have been asked to train at Thorp Arch as usual, but have been asked to self-isolate at other times and do their best to remain at home. But just how difficult was it to train after the news of the suspension of the league broke?
“It’s not the same,” says Gaetano. “Normally when you train you have a target, a goal to aim for at the end of the week, a game to play. But now we are training because we have to. Of course, it’s our job and we need to go to Thorp Arch to train, but it’s not the same.”
But at least you have contact with your teammates and the staff on a day-to-day basis? It must be important to have social contact?
“In this moment, maybe it is good to take a few days to rest and to take advantage of this situation. To recover a little from these recent games, but we must be professional. We have to keep training, to stay fit so that we are ready to play again.”
Has it been difficult to focus, and is it possible for training to remain intense?
“It is not easy to train in this situation, especially for people like me and Pablo [Hernandez]. We know the situation in Spain and Italy. We know how it is there and some people don’t realise this. I watch Italian news every day and it’s not just the elderly who are affected but people in their 20s, 30s and 40s as well.”
What about your former teammates in Italy?
“They told me that they have to stay at home, to train alone, to stay fit and to do as much as they can to be ready.”
Have you discussed what might happen in the future?
“No, we didn’t speak about this. We don’t know, we only spoke about the situation, we don’t know what’s going on and if it will get worse in England. We just need to continue, we will see.”
Communities throughout Europe face uncertainty and football suddenly seems unimportant. Football brings us together, it divides opinion and creates rivalries. But for now, these have been put to one side while we face a far greater challenge than battling promotion or relegation. Football in Italy has been described as ‘the only religion with no atheists.’ We must pray together at this present moment. ◉
(photo by Anthony Crewdson)