The fairy-tale rise of Brazil’s Chapecoense — from small football club to national heroes — has been cut tragically short, leaving the country mourning the loss of one of its most endearing sports teams.
The plane carrying the Brazilian team to the biggest game in its history was en route Monday night from Bolivia to Colombia when it crashed in Rionegro, near Medellin, killing 71 people.
Six people survived the crash, according to authorities. Chapecoense defender Alan Luciano Ruschel was among the survivors.
“The dream is over,” Plinio David de Nes Filho, chairman of the club’s board, told Brazil’s TV Globo.
“Yesterday morning I was saying goodbye to them. They told me they were going in search of the dream, to make this dream a reality.”
Chapecoense was supposed to play the first leg of its Copa Sudamericana final Wednesday against Colombia’s Atletico Nacional from Medellin before its plane went down.
“Chapecoense was one of the most lovely fairy tales,” Argentine sports journalist Martin Mazur told CNN.
“Unlike what happens with the big Brazilian clubs, Chapecoense’s humble story and its magnificent run in the Copa Sudamericana was naturally embraced by Brazilian football fans in general, becoming a fan’s favorite.
“It was South America’s Cinderella — nobody could have predicted this macabre ending.”
The Copa Sudamericana, the second-biggest intercontinental club competition in South America and the equivalent to Europe’s Europa League, had provided the backdrop to Chapecoense’s remarkable story.
The club, from Chapeco in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, was formed in the 1970s and played in the country’s fourth tier as recently as 2007.
A team with few big names, apart from Cleber Santana, who once played for Atletico Madrid and Mallorca in Spain, it went toe-to-toe with the big boys of Brazilian football.
Full of grit, spirit and determination, Chapecoense was a relatively unfashionable team hoping to tread a path laid out by English champions Leicester City.
‘A very great tragedy’
“It’s very hard, it’s hard to speak, I don’t even know what to say,” Ivan Tozzo, the club’s vice president, told Globo. “It’s a team we all love and been following for years.
“I have been working for the club for many years and know what we’ve been through.
“Just as we had made it, I will not say to the top, but to have national prominence, a tragedy like this happens. It is very difficult, a very great tragedy. We have to trust in God.”
This season had been full of adventure, with Chapecoense having traveled to Argentina twice to defeat Independiente and San Lorenzo on its way to the final, as well as scoring an aggregate victory over Colombian side Junior.
Victory in the final of the Copa Sudamericana would not only have been the greatest triumph in Chapecoense’s history but would have allowed it to compete in next season’s Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious club competition on the continent.
Ninth in Brazil’s top flight, it was supposed to finish its domestic season against Atlético Mineiro on Sunday before a return game with Atletico Nacional on December 6.
That game was supposed to take place in Curitiba, some 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) away because the team’s stadium, Arena Condá, does not have the capacity or infrastructure to host a major final.
“Chapecoense is a relatively young club, compared to the more well-established giants of the Brazilian game, and it seemed to be coming of age this season,” football journalist and author Euan McTear told CNN.
“The club returned to the top flight of Brazilian football just three years ago after a three-decade hiatus, and a number of the players that led them on this incredible run to the final of the Copa Sudamericana were the same players who helped them win promotion from the Serie B in 2013.
“I think that is why people warmed to them and to their success, because they were witnessing before their eyes the progression of a united group of players and of friends.”
Former Brazil striker Romario expressed his sympathy on Twitter, writing: “I am deeply saddened by this tragedy. My solidarity goes out to the friends and family members of the athletes, the journalists, the technical team and the crew. #forcachape.”
Not a first in football
This week’s crash is not the first time a football team has been involved in an air disaster.
In 1949, 18 Torino players were killed in a crash near Turin, Italy, as the club returned from a game in Lisbon, Portugal. The accident is remembered every year by the club’s fans at the scene of the crash — the Superga hillside by the city’s iconic basilica.
In 1958, eight Manchester United players lost their lives when their flight crashed on the third attempt to take off after refueling in Munich, West Germany, as the club returned from knocking Red Star Belgrade out of the European Cup.
In 1993, 18 members of the Zambia national team died in a plane crash en route to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal. The accident killed all 30 people on board.