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Chapecoense: The journey back

Oliver McManus writes about Chapecoense and their journey back to the top after the disaster that struck in November.

Sometimes the memories that stick out the most are not the ones we enjoy the most but, instead, are the ones that hurt the most; on the 28th November 2016, football suffered one of its darkest days in history.

LaMia Flight 2933, carrying 77 passengers and crew, crashed over La Union, Antioquia whilst making the journey from Viru Viru International, Bolivia to Jose Maria Cordova, Colombia.

Those on the plane included journalists, players and staff of Chapecoense – a top-flight Brazilian team on their way to the biggest game in their history; the Copa Sudamericana Final against Atletico Nacional.

70 of those on the plane died instantly, with Danilo passing away in hospital. The 6 that survived included a member of the flight crew, two journalists and 3 players – Alan Ruschel, Jakson Follmann and Neto.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, an outpouring of emotion from across the world was shown – Brazilian President, Michel Temer, declared 3 days of national mourning, clubs around South America played in Chapecoense’s kit colours and matches around the world started with a minute’s silence.

It’s almost 5 months since that accident and the Brazilian league is about to get underway again and with that in mind, I thought I’d have a look at how the club is coping in the foreground of tragedy.

Founded in May 1973, the club was formed with the goal of bringing football back to their city and their first title win came just 4 years later as they won the Campeonato Catarinense and won promotion to the top flight, Serie A, in 1978.

Since the turn of the century, however, the club has struggled for form and in 2009 they were in the 4th division of Brazilian football; 3 promotions in 5 years saw them reach the top division again in 2014 and since then they’ve been steadily progressing each season.

2016 was meant to be their breakthrough season; participating in the Copa Sudamericana by way of being the 3rd best team eliminated in the Copa do Brasil, the owners invested wisely to ensure a successful season.

In came Luiz Carlos Saroli, an experienced coach, who signed from Al Shabab and guided them to the final of the Sudamericana. Shortly after reaching that final he said, rather poignantly, “If I died tomorrow, I’d die a happy man”.

With that said, let’s take a look at their route to the final; A 3-2 win against Cuiaba guaranteed they would make it to the Round of 16, where they were the 3rd seeds.

A nip-and-tuck match against, Argentine giants, Independiente saw the two of the teams go to penalties. 16 spot-kicks were taken, the first 3 being missed before Chapecoense eventually got the edge 5-4.

The next round pitted them against Junior, from Colombia, who were heavy underdogs. Chapecoense, known as Furacão do Oeste, carried a 1-0 deficit into the 2nd leg but goals from Ananias, Gil and William Thiego put them through to the semi-finals.

San Lorenzo would await them and Lorenzo brought with them some serious form, having beaten Deportivo La Guarira, a good early bet for the tournament, 4-1 in their first match.

An early goal from the Argentinians put them one-up and Saroli’s men looked to be struggling before, their in-form midfielder, Ananias stole back a goal. The 2nd leg was a stalemate, a real dogged affair that resulted in a bore draw, but for Chapecoense, it was enough to get them through to the final.

It was meant to be the greatest day in the team’s history but it ended in tragedy. Their opponents, Atletico Nacional, put aside the politics of football and requested the trophy be given to the Furacão do Oeste. CONMEBOL agreed but, in such circumstances, there was no room for celebration.

Since that day, the whole of Brazil has been in mourning for those caught up in this terrible accident and, amidst it all, the club has had to go about rebuilding itself in a way never seen before.

If they thought it was going to be a difficult, lonely journey then they could not have been more wrong; 15 South American clubs loaned them players for free, Ronaldinho offered to “do all he could” to help the team out, Eidur Gudjohnsen offered his services as well.

Teams in Brazil even went so far as to request that Chapecoense be immune from relegation for 3 seasons – an offer that Furacão do Oeste refused, as they wanted to prove what they were worth.

The support didn’t stop there; Danilo, who passed away after the accident, was voted Brazilian Player of the Year by fans in December of 2016, winning 48% of the vote; 19,000 filled their stadium for their next match and it was broadcast live in 100 countries as the whole world showed solidarity with the people of Chapeco.

Since then, the recovery has been a slow but steady progress – towards the end of January, the team boarded their first flight since the crash as they travelled to Tubarao to play in the Campeonato Catarinense. The Catarinense would also serve as their first silver-ware of the aftermath, winning the second stage just days ago.

Their youth team has been a beacon of hope for the future, with the Under 20 team defeating title-favourites, Sao Paulo to progress in the U20 Copa Sao Paulo – a victory that perfectly exemplified the power of belief; if you think you can do something then, yes, you can do it.

Their kit has been sold worldwide with all the proceeds going directly to the club, allowing them to have some sort of stable financial flow and enabling the club to focus more on just playing football.

Neto, another survivor, woke from his coma and has been pictured giving team-talks to the new Chapecoense representatives and if that isn’t motivational then I don’t know what is.

The team themselves have played 4 competitive games since their rebuilding began, losing just once. Their first match was against, their original Copa Sudamericana opponents, Atletico Nacional in the 2017 Recopa Sudamericana; a 2 legged affair equivalent to the UEFA Super Cup.

The two clubs have developed a strong friendship with 130,000 Nacional fans attending a vigil for the victims of the crash; the match was played with heavy emotion and Chapecoense won 2-1 to take the advantage into their next meeting in May.

The progress that really matters is of those who were injured in the event; what of those that survived the crash?

Jakson Follman, a 25 year old goalkeeper, had to have one of his legs amputated and, in February, he posted a video showing him able to use a prosthetic leg; with that in mind, Follman says his next target is to represent Brazil in the Paralympic’s as part of their football team.

Alan Ruschel, a 27 year old left-back, was in his second spell at Chapecoense – having previously played for them in 2013 – was one of the luckiest on the plane. The first person to arrive at the hospital, he sustained a back injury which was corrected via surgery. Shortly after the accident, a video was released showing him able to walk independently again; having survived with relatively mild injuries, he hopes to be able to get back on the pitch in the short future.

Neto, the most experienced player on the flight, is a 31 year old centre-back who signed for the club in 2015 after impressing at Santos. Neto emerged with several injuries and had to undergo multiple surgeries before returning to full health; according to his father,  Neto may be able to continue playing and, in March, he was named in the Chapecoense squad for their first 2017 Copa Libertadores tie.

Going forward then, Chapecoense are looking to be able to continue these strides to recovery and, ultimately, be able to prove that they have what it takes to mix it with the best in South America.

The key for them is simple, look to the future whilst keeping an eye on the past, they shouldn’t allow themselves to forget what happened for, at the end of the day, it will always be part of their identity. In a similar vein, they should not solely allow themselves to be defined by the events of that day – they must move on and do what they do best, play football.

Of course, we must end this by expressing our sincere condolences to the 71 people who so needlessly lost their lives on the 28th November 2016, when LaMia Flight 2933 crashed in Colombia; 22 players, 23 club staff, 21 journalists and 2 guests. They will always be a part of the Chapeco family.

Oliver McManus

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