Brazil in mourning as miracle turns to tragedy
The plane crash in the early hours of yesterday morning near La Unión, Colombia, which claimed the lives of at least 75 people, including 19 players and the entire coaching staff of Brazilian football club Chapecoense, serves as a cruel and tragic end to what was a fairytale journey for the side from southern Brazil.
The team was travelling to the Colombian city of Medellín, where on this evening they were due to play local side Atlético Nacional in the first leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana - South American football's equivalent to the Europa League. Seventy-two passengers were aboard the Lamia flight from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Medellín, as well as nine crew members.
Regardless of the result, reaching the final of South America's second-most prestigious continental competition was an immeasurable achievement for a club of Chapecoense's size. A side which, just seven years ago, played its football in Brazil's fourth division.
Founded in the modest city of Chapecó in southern Brazil only 43 years ago, Chapecoense is the youngest of the 20 clubs who took part in this year's national first division. On the grand scale of Brazilian football, they are not among the most popular or traditional sides in the country - even in their home state of Santa Catarina they are dwarfed by Avaí and Figueirense, the two largest clubs from the nearby beach city of Florianópolis.
However, Chapecoense are notable for the fervour of their local fans, who abandoned their previous allegiances and got behind the club as one when they were established in the 1970s. The support at their home stadium, the Arena Condá, was one of the driving factors behind the club's incredible rise to the top tier of Brazilian football in the last decade. In 2012 and 2013, when Chapecoense won consecutive promotions to the second and first division respectively, the team lost only two of their 30 league matches played at home.
In 2014, their first ever season in the top flight, Chape managed to avoid relegation despite working with a budget infinitely smaller than those of their league rivals. What's more, they won a place in the Copa Sudamericana for the following year, their first ever continental competition.
Already in 2015, Chapecoense showed themselves to be well suited to playing foreign opponents. They eliminated Paraguayan side Libertad in the last 16 and were narrowly beaten in the quarter-finals by Argentinian giants River Plate, who were South American champions at the time.
The tie finished 4-3 on aggregate, with Chapecoense winning the second leg at home 2-1. Bruno Rangel, one of the victims of yesterday's crash and the club's all-time top goalscorer, scored a brace in that match. A third goal would have taken the quarter-final to a penalty shoot-out.
Chape returned to the Copa Sudamericana this year, having once again avoided relegation and consolidating themselves as a mainstay in the Brazilian first division. Their last 16 opponents were Independiente, another of Argentina's "Big Five" clubs. After 180 minutes of play without a goal, Chapecoense progressed on penalties in front of their own fans. The decisive spot-kick was scored by 22-year-old forward Thiaguinho, who was among the 75 victims of yesterday's crash and whose wife Graziele is expecting the couple's first child.
In the quarter-finals, they overturned a 1-0 defeat away from home to defeat Colombian side Junior de Barranquilla, once again counting on the unconditional support of the Arena Condá crowd and winning 3-0 during a rainstorm.
The miracle continued with an improbable 1-1 draw in the first leg of the semi-final against San Lorenzo, another giant of South American football. With a 0-0 result in the return fixture, Chapecoense would qualify for their first ever continental final, only seven years after playing in Brazil's fourth division.
The hero of the night was Chape's 31-year-old goalkeeper Danilo, who joined the club back in 2013. With San Lorenzo piling forward in search of a goal that would see them through to the final, Danilo made a number of important saves, including a point-blank stop with his right foot in the last minute. Danilo was among those rescued from the crash site, but he died from his injuries.
Chapecoense's last match was on Sunday, as they lost 1-0 to Brazilian champions Palmeiras in São Paulo. The home side needed a point to secure the title, and despite having nothing left to play for in the league, Chapecoense gave the eventual champions a tough match.
I was in attendance on Sunday, alongside many of the journalists who would later lose their lives on the Lamia flight to Medellín. As the Chapecoense coach left the Allianz Parque stadium that evening, the throngs of Palmeiras fans on the surrounding streets took a moment out of their wild title celebrations to applaud their defeated opponents and shout messages of support for Wednesday's Copa Sudamericana final.
Despite their tender age, Chapecoense are already one of the most sympathetic clubs in Brazil. As the only team in Chapecó, they have no direct rivals or enemies. Their miraculous rise to the first division has gained them many admirers and the Arena Condá is widely regarded as one of the most difficult away trips in the country. Tributes have flooded in from around the world, while the Brazilian football confederation (CBF) have rightly suspended the final round of the national championship and the final of the Brazilian Cup, due to be played this week.
Where the club goes from here remains to be seen, but for now Brazil is mourning a truly horrific tragedy.