SAO PAULO, Nov 29, (AFP): Traveling on the doomed airliner that crashed in Colombia overnight were the players and staff of a Brazilian football club about to complete a fairytale journey from unknowns to would-be South American champions.
The LAMIA charter plane went down near Medellin late Monday with 81 people aboard and so far only six are reported to have survived. At least two were said by officials to be football players.
For the Chapecoense Real team the disaster means the cruel end of a story that had been meant to climax with an unexpected chance for glory on Wednesday against Colombia’s Atletico Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final.
“The pain is terrible. 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,” club vice-president Ivan Tozzo told SporTV.
Only a few years ago Chapecoense was just another gritty outfit in the Brazilian lower leagues, where players, unable to afford cars, took the bus to training. The stadium in Chapeco, a city of 200,000 people in the southern Santa Catarina state, didn’t have a gym.
The steep climb from minnow to contender started in 2009 when Chapecoense entered the fourth division. Back then, the team’s top goalscorer Bruno Rangel told Brazilian newspaper Lance, even the club’s bus was “was very old.”
“But a lot has changed in the club since I arrived,” he said. “There are still prejudices against the club but more because we’re from the (country’s) interior. That’s diminishing, it’s true. Every day we’re more respected.”
By 2014 the club had fought its way into the lower half of the elite table, but the side wanted more. Even at this point Chapecoense was almost ignored by its own public, with only about 7,000 people turning up to home games, according to Globoesporte website.
Chapecoense entered the running for the Copa Sudamericana for the first time in 2015 and didn’t disappoint.
In the club’s first ever international tournament, the one-time unknowns didn’t go all the way, but they performed bravely, even defeating Argentina’s famed River Plate club.
This year, things seemed to be going wrong. The coach credited with Chapecoense’s miraculous rise, Guto Ferreira, walked out and his replacement Caio Junior lost his first game against the lowly Cuiaba.
But the little team that could roared back, taking down Argentina’s Independiente and Junior de Barranquilla. They were going to the final to meet the reigning Copa Libertadores champions Atletico Nacional and no one would write them off anymore.
On the way to Colombia, the team stopped off in Sao Paulo to play the penultimate game of Brazil’s domestic league.
Here they lost against Palmeiras, the team which ended the season as Brazilian champion. But there was a sense that the players had their minds on the bigger challenge awaiting them against Atletico.
“I see this is a group of winners. It’s as if God has put us precisely here today to taste this and to appreciate even more the challenge on Wednesday,” the coach said after the Sao Paulo game.
Now their dreams have met a devastating end and on Wednesday at what would have been an intriguing first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final there’ll be only silence.
Back in Chapeco, the stadium was opened up to greet grieving families and fans.
“We’re all here at the stadium to help the people connected,” said Tozzo.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet. We have to trust in God. Out team must carry on,” he said.