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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, commonly known as Chapecoense and whose acronym is ACF, is a Brazilian football club, based in the city of Chapecó in the state of Santa Catarina.
Besides football the club also has activities in futsal, in which it has been state champion twice. The club was founded in 1973 with the goal of restoring football in the city of Chapecó, and won their first state title in 1977. In all, the club has won five state championships to date, the last in 2016. A relatively small club, they entered Brazil’s top division, Série A, for the first time in 2014. The club’s home matches are played at Arena Condá.
On November 28, 2016, a charter flight carrying the first team crashed as it approached José María Córdova International Airport near Medellín, Colombia, where the team was traveling to play the first leg of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana final against Atlético Nacional, a match that was seen as the biggest in the history of the club. All but six of the 77 passengers died; only three Chapecoense players survived their injuries. Following the crash, Atlético Nacional made a request to the governing body of the competition that Chapecoense be awarded the trophy.
The club was founded as Associação Chapecoense de Futebol on May 10, 1973, after the merger of Atlético Chapecoense and Independente.
In 1977, Chapecoense won its first title, which was the Santa Catarina State Championship, beating Avaí 1–0 in the final.
In 1978, the club competed for the first time in the Brazilian Championship First Level, finishing in the 51st position, and in following year, finished in the 93rd position.
In 2002, due to a partnership, Chapecoense was renamed to Associação Chapecoense Kindermann/Mastervet. In 2006, the club was renamed back to its original name, Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, and also won the Copa Santa Catarina.
In 2007, the club won for the third time the state championship, and also competed in the Brazilian Championship Third Level, but was eliminated in the first stage of the competition. They won the Campeonato Catarinense again in 2011 and 2016.
Chapecoense competed in the Série A for the first time since 1979 in 2014, as the club was promoted after they and Bragantino drew 1–1, in Chapecó, for the 2013 Série B. Winning important points during its first season in the top flight, Chape cemented a place in the 2015 Série A, its second season in a row in the first division.
In 2016, Chapecoense made history when they reached the finals of the Copa Sudamericana 2016 after defeating San Lorenzo de Almagro using the away goals rule.
On the evening of November 28, 2016, LaMia Airlines Flight 2933 carrying 77 people including the staff and players from the club crashed as it approached Medellín, Colombia due to an electrical failure and possibly lack of fuel. Investigations are still underway. 71 people died (including 21 journalists and almost the entire first team and managerial staff) and 6 survived, according to BBC. The surviving players were left back Alan Ruschel, backup goalkeeper Follmann (who had one of his legs amputated due to his injuries), and center-back Neto. Goalkeeper Danilo initially survived the crash, but later died before arriving to the hospital.
Due to the crash, the 2016 Copa Sudamericana Finals in which the team were due to play was suspended indefinitely. Their opponents, Atletico Nacional of Colombia, offered to concede the tie to allow Chapecoense to be awarded the championship.
Brazilian clubs decided to loan out players to them for free and sent a request to the Brazilian FA stating that the club should be immune from relegation for three years. Chapecoense goalkeeper Nivaldo soon after announced his immediate retirement from football.
There was a lot of anger among the fans of Chapecoense after it was confirmed that LaMia Airlines Flight 2933 ran out of fuel after leaked footage confirmed that the pilot requested to land due to fuel problems but was instructed to wait 7 minutes as another aircraft was having mechanical problems. The country of Bolivia has suspended the airline company, LaMia Airlines flying license due to recent information surfacing that the pilot skipped a crucial refuelling stop that could have prevented the tragedy that occurred on flight 2933.
Chapecoense have been asked to fulfill their next league fixture in tribute to the players and staff who died in a plane crash. Chapecoense President Ivan Tozzo revealed that the Brazilian FA have asked for the club to play their final league game of the 2016 campaign.