I had never found it so hard to hit backspace. It was around 7am on the morning of Tuesday, November 29 2016, and I’d just finished an overnight shift of previewing Brazilian first division teams, as I used to do every Monday night. Chapecoense, of course, were one of the 20 teams I’d written a preview for, but it was never published. After finishing my final piece, I’d taken a quick look at the morning’s news and that was when I first learned of the horrors of LaMia Flight 2933. The plane carrying the Chapecoense squad to Medellín for their Copa Sudamericana final first-leg against Atlético Nacional had crashed.
As I watched the live coverage, it became clear that there were almost no survivors. My preview was no longer fit for purpose. It wasn’t even important anymore. One minute players had been at risk of suspension or had been carrying a knock. The next they had passed away in plane wreckage on a Colombian mountainside. Time to hit backspace on those late players’ names and re-save it with a euphemistic “game will be postponed” explanatory note.
But the next weekend’s game against Atlético Mineiro, the final one of the league season, wasn’t simply postponed or cancelled. The Brazilian footballing authorities could not make an exception to the rules, despite the fact that 19 members of the club’s playing squad, plus their coach and almost every director, had perished on that fateful flight. Both clubs were duly awarded a 3-0 technical loss for not showing up. Yes, a club that had lost almost everything and everyone was punished for not putting out a team, as were Atlético Mineiro, a club not wanting to show disrespect by turning up for a game they knew could not take place. It was at that moment that something became very clear. Football did mourn the Chapecoense disaster. But football had to carry on as normal too.
12 months on, Chapecoense will this time take part in the Brazilian Série A’s final round and they do so targeting their highest ever finish in the top division. Their previous highest finish was 2016’s 11th-place, but the Verdão currently sit ninth in the table and could end the year as high as sixth if scorelines go their way this weekend, a result that would earn them a Copa Libertadores berth.
Already they have mathematically ensured that they will not be relegated, even after rejecting the offer of immunity from the drop for three seasons. They did so by conquering Vitória 2-1 in front of their home fans, with the crowd chanting “Come on Chape!” in the 71st minute, the touching tribute they perform every home game to the 71 who lost their lives on the night of November 28 2016.
It has been an emotional and unique year since that night, starting with the task of rebuilding an entire squad. Their first match after the crash was a friendly against champions Palmeiras on January 21 2017 and the most incredible thing was that there was a team of 11 players out there on the pitch in time for kick-off. Without the financial aid that many media outlets reported would come their way, Chapecoense’s budget was truly tiny, even with the 6 million Brazilian real – roughly £1.7 million – deposited in the Chape accounts from the sale of Hyoran – who was injured and who’d stayed behind for the Copa Sudamericana final – to Palmeiras. The only option, then, was to bring in free agents and loanees, while they also promoted 10 youth academy players to the senior squad. “It is just unbelievable that they managed to rebuild the entire team and the club board in such a short time,” former player Janca said, when summing up the off-season up to ESPN.
The most devastated and traumatised club in Brazil was also the best club in Brazil, at least for a fleeting moment.
The very experienced Vágner Mancini was brought in to piece this jigsaw puzzle of a squad together and his team won the Campeonato Catarinense, the state championship of Santa Catarina. They then started the league season in extraordinary fashion, drawing 1-1 away at eventual champions Corinthians in the first week, before winning three matches on the bounce. At the end of the fourth week of the season, Chapecoense – or ChapecoLeicester, as some christened them – were top of the table. The most devastated and traumatised club in Brazil was also the best club in Brazil, at least for a fleeting moment.
That, understandably, didn’t last for ever and a run of one win in nine followed, with Mancini thanked for his work in rebuilding the squad at a difficult time, but ultimately let go. Interim boss Emerson Cris kept the dugout warm for Gilson Kleina, who embarked on a miraculous and inspiring late-season undefeated streak.
While the mood has always remained sombre, there have been some other moments, besides just the results, for the people of Chapecó to smile about and to cherish. There was the friendly against Barcelona at the Camp Nou back in August, when three players to have survived the crash – Jakson Follmann, Neto and Alan Ruschel – took the honorary kick-off, with the latter even participating in the match. Ruschel then took and scored a penalty in a friendly match against Roma, before making his return to competitive action a few weeks later at home to Flamengo in the Copa Sudamericana, the tournament which had brought him so much joy and so much despair over the previous year. There was also the uplifting news that the club will paint portraits of the crash victims on the outside of their stadium, the Arena Condá. Plus the support the survivors have been able to offer several of the victims’ widows, for which they this week publically expressed their gratitude.
Sadly, there remain many issues for the club too. 19 players’ loan spells are set to be up once the league season comes to an end and Chapecoense may find it more difficult to count on rival clubs’ generosity this off-season, now that the tragedy isn’t as fresh in the memory. An investigation as to what happened is also due to be published in Colombia, which is hardly going to be fun for the victims’ families to read through. There is also a messy battle with the insurance companies being dragged very slowly through the courts, bringing both financial difficulties for the families, as well as emotional distress. Charity organisation have been set up to help the families, but they too risk being forgotten about, now that life has moved on and people have forgotten.
Yet today, November 28 2017, everybody will remember what happened this time last year when a humble and overachieving football team embarked on a journey to Colombia. It changed the club forever.