Tragedies in the sport have always been something that can unite an entire city, nation, continent and even the world, all in mourning and remembrance. That type of unity was no different when on the evening of November 28, 2016, tragedy struck the football world.
A plane carrying the 43-year old Brazilian team Chapecoense, with the dream of an entire city, state, region and even a country behind them, traveled to Medellin, Colombia to play the current Copa Libertadores, the UEFA Champions League of South America, champions Atlético Nacional to play the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana, the UEFA Europa League of South America.
Sadly, just 30 or so minutes before arriving at the city in Antioquia, the plane crashed and killed the majority of the team and its coaching staff, as well as the flight crew and several journalists who traveled with the team to cover its maiden final. The air disaster sent shock waves to the entire world, mainly to the football fans.
In total, 71 passengers were killed, including 22 players, 23 coaching and other club staff, 2 guests and 21 journalists. The surviving players were Alan Ruschel, Jakson Follmann, and Neto will hopefully try to play for Chapecoense in the future but looks unlikely. But what is this team? How did it enlighten the country of Brazil and eventually the world? Here’s the story on what this team from the south of Brazil represented not only to their state, region or country but to the world.
What is Chapecoense?
In 1973, the team based in Chapeco, in the state of Santa Catarina, on the southern part of Brazil, Associação Chapecoense de Futebol was founded by a group of fans following the merger of Atlético Chapecoense and Independente, with the goal of restoring football in the city of Chapeco, a city with a population of only 200,000.
During that time, they competed in the state championship of Santa Catarina against various other clubs from the region, where the winner gets a spot in the top divisions of Brazilian football. They did compete in the Brazilian first division in 1978, with the outrageous 80 clubs competing in 10 groups, but they did not stay for long as they were relegated in 1980.
During those decades, they continued to compete in the championship in Santa Catarina but were unable to earn a spot in the big top divisions of Brazilian football. At the turn of the new millennium, Chapecoense went through a great crisis in which the club had to be renamed thanks to the help of some sponsors in 2002, only to go back to their old name four years later. In that same year, they won the Santa Catarina Cup.
The Verdão Dines with Brazil’s and South America’s Elite
In 2009, following a runners-up finish in the Santa Catarina State Championship, Chapecoense were promoted to Serie D of Brazil, the fourth division and were promoted to the third division the following year, where they would stay for two years, being promoted to Serie B in 2012.
In 2013, they finished spectacularly as runners-up, promoting themselves to the first division of Brazilian football for the first time in nearly three decades. It was there where they were able to compete with the major giants of not only Brazil but of South America against clubs such as Corinthians, Flamengo, Cruzeiro, Gremio, Santos, Palmeiras and Sao Paulo among others.
Consistency continued as they finished mid-table in their maiden Brasilerao appearance, but was able to get a qualification to the 2015 Copa Sudamericana as the fourth best Serie A or B teams eliminated before the Round of 16 of the 2015 Copa do Brasil, the Brazilian Cup.
There, they surprised the entire continent defeating compatriots Ponte Preta and Paraguayan side Libertad all the way to the quarterfinals, where they took on the best team in South America and reigning Copa Libertadores champions, Argentina’s River Plate.
Los Millionarios won the first leg at home 3-1, but Chapecoense narrowly ousted the continent giants by winning 2-1 with a brace from Bruno Rangel, only for Uruguayan Carlos Sanchez to score the crucial away goal that ended the dream for the only Brazilian side left in the competition.
Joy to Horror
The following year, Caio Junior’s men qualified against to the 2016 Copa Sudamericana as the virtue of being the third best Serie A or B team eliminated before the Round of 16 of the 2016 Copa do Brasil, only this time with much more support. With the story that the Santa Catarina based side was able to show in their maiden voyage in South America club competitions, a lot of Brazilian fans across the nation showed their support to Chapecoense, using the efforts of social media.
During their campaign, they ousted compatriots Cuiabá in the second stage, seven-time Copa Libertadores champions Independiente of Argentina in the Round of 16, Atletico Junior of Colombia in the quarterfinals to give them a tie against Argentina’s San Lorenzo in the semifinals. In Buenos Aires, the match ended 1-1, leaving the tie to the favor of Chapecoense at home at the Arena Condá on November 23.
The match ended 0-0 and nearly gave San Lorenzo, but a wonderful save with the feet from goalkeeper Danilo to defender Marcos Angeleri gave the Brazilian side the opportunity to play their first ever continental final, when only a little over five years ago, they were in the realms of the fourth division of Brazilian football.
The stage was set for a tasty final, where they would take on Colombian giants, reigning Copa Libertadores champions and the best team in the continent, Atletico Nacional. A David versus Goliath was ready for its first act on November 30th in Medellin, but two days before the first clash, the air crash of LaMia Flight 2933 shocked the world.
Brotherhood, not rivals
The air crash of Chapecoense brought about intense grief and sorrow, but also unity from various football personalities and fans around the world. Minutes of silence at various football training grounds and matches throughout various stadiums joined in a minute of silence, tributes poured about on social media, all to Chapecoense. Many Brazilian clubs offered to loan the club players for the next year and asked the CBF, the Brazilian FA, to exempt Chapecoense from relegation for the next three years.
In Colombia, a four-hour tribute and vigil took place at Atlético Nacional's stadium, the Estadio Atansio Girardot at the time the match Chapecoense had been scheduled to play would have kicked off. This was attended by 40,000 spectators with nearly 100,000 outside the stadium. Atletico Nacional became the team that opened its doors to the fans of Chapecoense and to all Brazilians, with a reception that night becoming one of the most special tributes ever demonstrated in world football and perhaps all of the sports.
Justice for the Future
Finally on December 5, one week after the crash, the South American Football Confederation, CONMEBOL awarded the 2016 Copa Sudamericana to Chapecoense, With that, they received the winner's prize money of 2 million dollars, was awarded qualification to the 2017 Copa Libertadores, and will play the 2017 Suruga Bank Championship against the champions of the Japanese Cup and 2017 Recopa Sudamericana, otherwise known as the UEFA Super Cup of South America against Atlético Nacional.
On December 21, Chapecoense received the trophy at the 2017 Copa Libertadores draw in Paraguay by CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez to Chapecoense president Plínio David De Nes Filho.
After receiving a warm reception and applause from the audience as well as when their name was drawn in draw, pitted in a group with Nacional of Uruguay, Lanus of Argentina and Zamora of Venezuela, it is no doubt that the world will be backing this team for glory, for everything that they went and suffered through during the last few weeks since the air crash.
The players and coaches all had a dream, to be noticed and to do what they had to as a team and play the beautiful game. Many people around the world, various players and clubs are in mourning, but let this be known that these people did not die in vain. This will take a few days, weeks, months and possibly years to recover for Brazilian and South American football. But the worldwide support that people are demonstrating to this team shows how deferential people are.
Chapecoense was one of those key examples of a club with little to work with but of course, stability as a club both financially and team based, made them the club that they were loved by many people from the region and eventually by many of the countries and eventually the world. And with that, we say “Gracias Colombia” and “Obrigado Chapecoense". May God bless and protect the families of the victims and the fans of Chapecoense.
Exclusive Interview with Andre Kfouri-Journalist for ESPN Brazil and LANCE!
VAVEL were able to get an exclusive interview with Andre Kfouri, a journalist for ESPN Brazil and LANCE!, to share his thoughts on Chapecoense, both before and after the tragedy.
Q: What did Chapecoense represent to the football fans of Brazil both before and after the tragedy?
Andre: "Before the tragedy, they had established themselves as a well run club, capable of converting their budget into a good, solid team through long-term planning and a clear vision of what they wanted to be. That is how they climbed from the lowest divisions in Brazil and were able to play well in recent years in South American cups. After the tragedy, Chapecoense became the second team of every fan in Brazil. I think it is going to be just like that forever."
Q: Looking into 2017 with the Copa Libertadores and league, how do you see this side under Vagner Mancini?
Andre: "Very difficult year for them. They will play in seven competitions during the season with a new group of players. It would be hard for any club, even for players who knew each other well and had an established collective identity (which they had until that fateful flight). So they will have to build a team during the year, facing the usual problems and the ones that come with having to overcome a tragic event. That said, Mancini is a good manager and is committed to the job in front of him."
Q: What are your opinions on the brotherhood of both Atletico Nacional and Chapecoense?
Andre: "Amazing, unbelievable and unforgettable. Atletico Nacional will be forever followed and loved in Brazil because of what they did during that week of the tragedy. The ceremony at their stadium on Wednesday night was probably the most beautiful thing sports has ever seen. Their defeat at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan was lamented here."
Q: Finally, how do you feel in regards to the way the entire world has opened its heart and support to Chapecoense?
Andre: "This was the first sports tragedy in the age of social media. I think this played an important role in getting people together and spreading good ideas and making things happen around the world. The sport was overwhelmed by an unprecedented wave of humanity and solidarity that helped to show people what is really important. The true values of the game were in full exposure, the same values that the business of football has corrupted over the last few decades. I hope it is not something that goes away with time."