'They were totally ungrateful' - The man who rebuilt Chapecoense on how the club has lost its way since air tragedy
“Ungrateful,” responds Vagner Mancini. “They were totally ungrateful.”
These aren't words you'd expect to be aimed at elements within Chapecoense, a year after their LaMia charter ran out of fuel and plunged into a Colombian mountain on the way to the Copa Sudamericana final. And certainly you don't expect them from a man that played perhaps the key role in ensuring their continuation at the highest level of football. But the 41-year-old is open and honest when talking about his treatment in the small southern city, and it's a view that's hard to argue with when you consider his story.
So let's take you back to its start.
Last December, the manager was on his ranch watching a game on TV in the background, but really discussing the accident with some friends. He'd known many of the 71 that were killed, including five players that had lined out under him at various sides, but his reminiscing was cut short by a call. He wasn't going to answer until he saw the number was from Chapeco. “Their president invited me to work with them,” he recalls. “Of course it happened before with an Italian team [Torino in 1949], an English team [Manchester United in 1958], a Peruvian team [Alianza Lima in 1987], but it is always to hard to deal with and all of us that live our lives in sport, we are on planes every week.
“So it hit everybody emotionally but I accepted the challenge. After signing I went to Chapeco and I found a city really battered by the disaster, people on the streets were distraught, there were banners on the streets, there was still a big sadness in the air. So I went there and was presented to everybody. Twenty days after I came back and the city was still the same terrible way. That actually only changed when Chapecoense started playing again at the end of January. After a sporting life came back into the city, things started getting back to normal as much as they could”.
It seemed an impossible task as Mancini had to build up from what weren't even foundations, as the club had hardly any key employees far beyond just playing staff. Yet they quickly won the state championship, just their sixth title in 93 editions of the Santa Catarina tournament; they took part in the Copa Libertadores for the first time and would have advanced from the group stages but for an administrative error that saw points deducted and allowed current finalists Lanus through at their expense; and they sat mid-table in the league by mid-season.
Then came an entertaining but innocuous 3-3 draw at Rio de Janeiro side Fluminense, and an anonymous club director saying Mancini loved the team too much and that it was clouding his judgment. Football director Joao Carlos Maringa added: "It was not just a result but a series of internal problems such as loss of focus and relationships with people in the club that led us to make that decision." The board had bizarrely aligned and sacked him mere months into his work.
“The plan was to do a year and rebuild the club and hopefully stay longer,” says Mancini, “but those over the club thought better. Things happen in football but to be honest, even until now, I don't understand it. I was in love with the team? I am a person always in love with my work, and I really appreciate honesty and good people in this job. But whoever said this was the reason, they didn't even identify themselves and they spoke in a wicked way. But this is irrelevant now because I know what I am capable of, I know the level of professional that I am.”
He knew it would be hard, just not for those internal reasons. Indeed even in a country where managers are on a fast paced carousel, always sacked yet never out of work, (23 changes have already taken place in the 20-team top flight this season with a round of games to go) his removal left a bitter taste. While many rightly mourn what happened due to cost-cutting and greed by the Bolivian airline responsible, the aftermath hasn't just been about a side that continued to punch above their weight. Instead there have been various threads involving various parties using the disaster for their own means.
Within days of the crash for instance, the board of Internacional, a giant Brazilian side based in Porto Alegre that found themselves in the relegation zone, tried to use the accident as a way to cancel the remainder of the national championship and void all relegation. They said their players were overcome and couldn't play, although a journalist at a press conference told them he had lost close media friends that were on board and he was there working.
By the new year, in that state championship when a new and quickly put-together Chapecoense side returned to the field for their first home game since the accident, just 8,290 showed up which is a little over a third of the capacity at the Arena Conda. Shortly after, when the side traveled to nearby Criciuma, the home fans there chanted, 'Ao, ao, ao, abastece o aviao,' meaning make sure to refuel your plane.
“I think in sport, and in general, we will always find positive and negative energy,” says Mancini. “Chapecoense played in loads of places and were welcomed, exalted in airports, and even outside Brazil. But in some places, we had unfortunately a small group of fans showing the negative side, and at times that upset us but we don't take it too seriously, especially because we knew they were really poor in spirit."
But others spoken to are still angry about a perceived commercialisation of the crash and the marketing of it by Chapecoense themselves.
If Mancini was frustrated with Chapecoense's treatment of his rebuild, the son of his predecessor Caio Junior, who was among the dead, was angry at how the club went about any rebuild. In April, a post on the Facebook page of Matheus Saroli was picked up by media and widely reported.
“The club's focus is on reconstruction. Let's make it clear though, reconstruction is something built exclusively on people who are no longer among us. I'm talking about the president, financial director and soccer director, among others who created this project from scratch years ago, and who took Chapecoense from a club level practically non-existent to a Serie A team... Today the club is managed by people without any connection to the victims. Their connection is to marketing, expansion and profit... It is impressive how much they are worried about the club reconstruction but not about constructing an image of all the warriors who gave their lives to the club... They hire an artistic director, sponsor race cars, do pyrotechnic shows, for this vital 'reconstruction'.
“My question is if the club took the year to give sole and exclusive attention to the victims would we have a different scenario? Would we have media giving attention to those who deserve and need help now? Would we have the people required to help children with psychological treatment and countless other situations? Would we have people to resolve all bureaucratic issues involving of more than 50 families that have not at all been resolved to date? But no, hiring an artistic director for an absurd party and a whole new cast is a priority in this rebuilding.”
It makes this far from a simple disaster-and-triumph story, granted Mancini stresses that “I have lovely memories about the team we formed. It was with hard work, 80 per cent of the athletes there were my recommendations. So looking back I try to remember with love all the time I spent there and nothing else other than that.”
At the weekend, meanwhile, he will try and keep his new club Vitoria in Serie A as they sit just above the relegation zone, while the team he built and the club that abandoned him have a shot at making the Libertadores again. That would be a serious achievement, although for some it is only the same club in name as a year ago the old version disappeared with many that had so-nearly made them famous.