The club’s plane went down just minutes away from Medellin, transforming what had been an incredible journey to the final of the Copa Sudamericana into tragedy.
It was a scene that plays out hundreds of times every week across the world of football. Chapecoense’s heroic players and staff milled around Sao Paulo’s Guarulho airport ahead of their overnight flight to Santa Cruz in Bolivia and then on to Medellin, where on Wednesday they would take on Atletico Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final.
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The video shows plenty of tired faces, as one would expect, but also smiles and excitement at the prospect of making history. The Brazilian club had come from nowhere to earn the right to fight for silverware, and simply making the final marked a fantastic achievement for all those involved.
But now, as the club’s dreams perished along with 76 lives just five kilometres outside of the Colombian city, those young faces impatiently waiting to board the plane will be forever associated with a tragedy that has shaken South American football to its very core.
As rescue efforts continue unabated in the dense jungle outside Medellin, hampered by poor visibility and conditions, early reports were understandably unclear. It is believed at this early stage that an electrical fault was responsible for the charter jet going down minutes before beginning its descent into the Jose Maria Cordova airport, and seven passengers were retrieved alive from the wreckage.
The sleepy city of Chapeco is not accustomed to tragedy. Nestled in the rich farming belt of Brazil in the west of Santa Catarina state, it is known far more for its agricultural production than its footballing prowess. Chapecoense were one of the very first teams from the region to battle for titles at a state level following their foundation in 1973, winning the Catarinense crown just four years later over traditional Florianopolis powerhouses Figueirense and Avai.
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In 2014 the side won entry to the elite of Brazilian football, Serie A, for the very first time, and this year made their maiden appearance in a continental tournament just seven years after winning promotion from the bottom-tier Serie D. It was an incredible rise up the rankings, but Chape were not ready to rest just yet.
The adventure began with victory over fellow Brazilians Cuiaba, but a meeting with Argentine giants Independiente, seven-time Copa Libertadores champions, appeared to signal an early exit. But Chapecoense had other ideas. The underdogs frustrated their more illustrious rivals over two goalless ties, before goalkeeper Danilo – who survived the crash, only to pass away later in hospital – sent his team into the quarter-finals with a series of heroic penalty saves.
Colombia’s Junior were the next to fall, downed 3-0 in the deciding leg after winning by one goal in Barranquilla as Chape ran riot in front of their own fans. And, after two impossibly tense meetings with San Lorenzo, a place in the final was secured on away goals.
“If I should die today, I would be happy,” coach Caio Junior, a veteran of several top Brazilian clubs in his long career on the bench, told reporters before parting for Santa Cruz. Those words now feel tragically prophetic, a statement of unrestrained joy made only too true by fate.
‘Chapecoense were a family’
The tragedy goes much further than those unfortunate enough to be on the plane. Argentine forward Alejandro Martinuccio had joined Chape at the start of the 2016 season in a bid to get a once promising career back on track following years of injury woe. The ex-Penarol player, who took on Neymar in the club’s 2011 Copa Libertadores final loss at the hands of Santos, continued to struggle with his fitness, and was disappointed to see his chances of taking on Nacional ended by another injury.
But that disappointment soon turned to grief. “Please pray for my team-mates,” he pleaded on Twitter as the scale of the disaster unfolded, and the player will need close attention to recover from the shock of seeing his friends and colleagues enveloped in a heart-breaking event. As will Alan Ruschel, Neto and Jakson Follman, the three members of the Chape team that at the time of writing were rescued alive from the smouldering wreckage of the plane.
Medellin has a fearsome reputation in aviation circles as a dangerous place to fly. On June 24, 1935, a crash in the city claimed the lives of legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel and 16 others, in the process forever linking Medellin with Argentina in a bond only tragedy can forge. In 1967 a plane carrying the Racing Club squad to a Copa Libertadores encounter with Independiente Medellin suffered a technical fault, leaving those on board fearing for their lives. “If we survive this, we will be champions”, the Academia stars told each other, and they were right; the craft eventually righted itself, and the side went on to lift the famous trophy before downing Celtic in the Intercontinental Cup.
But for Chapecoense there will be no fairytale. This tiny club has been ripped to pieces by the tragedy, losing all but a handful of the first-team squad and facing the prospect of rebuilding from scratch with the darkest of shadows hanging over them. But they will gain strength from the incredible solidarity shown from around the football world, from their prospective final opponents to the sides beaten on the way to the showpiece and teams such as Manchester United and Torino, who have their own bitter experience of aircraft tragedies.
And they will be back. The Brazilians have suffered the cruellest of fates just hours away from the biggest moment in their history, and the underdogs deserve to rebuild from the ashes of Medellin and return to the biggest stage. For now, however, Chape deserve to be in all our thoughts, as news of one of the worst football tragedies ever to hit South America leaves the entire world in grief.