Brazil team goes from glory to tragedy

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Mauri­cio Savarese and Stephen Wade

CHAPECO, BRAZIL >> For the play­ers on the hum­ble Brazil­ian club from an out-of-the-way city known for its agribusi­ness plants, these were go­ing to be the games of their lives.

Chapecoense was hav­ing the best sea­son in its 43-year his­tory, head­ing to the first of two matches in the fi­nal of the Copa Su­damer­i­cana, the con­ti­nent’s No. 2 club tour­na­ment. The on­ce­down­trod­den club and its itin­er­ant play­ers were en­joy­ing the heights of soc­cer glory.

It all ended sud­denly late Mon­day night on a muddy Colom­bian hill­side. Their char­tered air­craft crashed south of Medellin, killing 71 of the 77 peo­ple aboard, in­clud­ing most of the team. Three play-

ers were among the sur­vivors.

The tragedy stunned the south­ern city of Chapeco and its 200,000 res­i­dents, and fans gath­ered in si­lence Tues­day to mourn out­side the team’s small green-and-white con­crete sta­dium.

“The city is very quiet,” busi­ness­man Ce­cilio Hans said. “Peo­ple will only be­lieve once the bod­ies start to ar­rive.”

On so­cial me­dia, haunt­ing last pho­tos showed the smil­ing play­ers board­ing the flight to Colom­bia for the first of two matches against Atletico Na­cional.

In one photo, the team cel­e­brated a last-minute save by goal­keeper Danilo only a week ago against Ar­gen­tine club San Lorenzo. The save guar­an­teed Chapecoense a spot in the fi­nal — and ul­ti­mately cost Danilo his life in the crash.

“Now I wish he would have con­ceded that goal,” said 17-year-old fan Rubens Vieira.

The club, known as Chape, was in the midst of a re­mark­able run. As re­cently as 2009, the club was play­ing in Brazil’s fourth di­vi­sion, but it won pro­mo­tion to the top league in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s.

Vic­to­ries over San Lorenzo and In­de­pen­dente — two of Ar­gentina’s fiercest squads — as well as Colom­bian club Ju­nior took the team to the Copa Su­damer­i­cana fi­nals, the equiv­a­lent of the UEFA Europa League tour­na­ment.

On Sun­day, Chapecoense nearly de­feated famed Sao Paulo club Palmeiras, which won 1-0 to claim its first Brazil­ian league ti­tle in decades. Chape had gained ad­mir­ers for its stout play against Palmeiras, and ev­ery­thing was set for Wed­nes­day’s show­down in Colom­bia. The sec­ond match was to be a week later in Brazil.

Hans re­mem­bered that about a decade ago, “this club nearly dis­ap­peared. Then busi­ness­men started to help.”

Few of the play­ers had an in­ter­na­tional pro­file, and none had any ap­pear­ances with Brazil’s glitzy na­tional team or time with top Euro­pean clubs. Most had played all over Brazil and Latin Amer­ica. A few like Cle­ber San­tana had reached Europe, play­ing with Atletico Madrid from 2007-10.

Chape strik­ers Bruno Ran­gel and Kem­pes, both 34, were among the top scor­ers in the Brazil­ian league, with 10 and nine goals, re­spec­tively.

The only play­ers to sur­vive were goal­keeper Jak­son Foll­mann, de­fender Hélio Zampier, com­monly known as Neto, and de­fender-mid­fielder Alan Ruschel.

Part of Chape’s re­cent rise was due to coach Caio Ju­nior, who joined the club this year af­ter guid­ing teams in the Mid­dle East. Born Luiz Car­los Saroli, he coached nu­mer­ous Brazil­ian teams, in­clud­ing Palmeiras, Fla­mengo and Botafogo.

He was among the dead. But his son, Matheus Saroli, sur­vived, say­ing in a Face­book post that he missed the flight “be­cause I for­got my pass­port.”

An Ar­gen­tine player on the club, Ale­jan­dro Mart­in­uc­cio, also missed the flight be­cause of an in­jury dur­ing a game, he told Ar­gentina’s La Red ra­dio.

“I feel deep sad­ness. The only thing I can ask is prayers for the com­pan­ions who were on the flight,” he said.

Psy­chol­o­gist So­nia Sman­iotto said she came to the sta­dium in Chapeco at 7 a.m. to help coun­sel be­reaved fans.

“This is hor­ri­ble for the city, but it will be even worse for the fam­i­lies,” she said. “Each burial will be the burial of a hero be­cause those fam­i­lies of foot­ballers are built around their ca­reers. These fam­i­lies were hop­ing to be on the top of the world. Now they’ve lost the cen­ter of their lives.”

Also among the dead were 20 sports jour­nal­ists, in­clud­ing Mario Ser­gio Pontes de Paiva, a for­mer player who worked as a com­men­ta­tor for Fox Sports. He played briefly for Brazil’s na­tional team in the early 1980s and had a long ca­reer as a mid­fielder and coach with many Brazil­ian clubs. He last coached Brazil­ian club In­ter­na­cional in 2009 and Ceara in 2010.

“This is a very, very sad day for foot­ball,” FIFA Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino said in a state­ment. “At this dif­fi­cult time our thoughts are with the vic­tims, their fam­i­lies and friends.”

Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Michel Te­mer is declar­ing three days of of­fi­cial mourn­ing, soc­cer great Pele called it a “tragic loss,” and Brazil­ian cham­pion Palmeiras asked the coun­try’s foot­ball con­fed­er­a­tion for per­mis­sion to wear Chapecoense’s jersey in its last match of the sea­son.

Around the world, the sport paused to re­mem­ber the vic­tims.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have held a minute of si­lence be­fore their prac­tice ses­sions. France’s top two leagues said there would be a minute’s si­lence at Tues­day night’s games, and de­fend­ing League One cham­pion Paris Saint-Ger­main also tweeted a photo of its play­ers and staff stand­ing in silent trib­ute.

Medellin-based Atletico Na­cional said it was ask­ing the South Amer­i­can soc­cer con­fed­er­a­tion to give the Copa Su­damer­i­cana ti­tle to Chape as a trib­ute to the play­ers who died.

In ad­di­tion, some of Brazil’s top clubs said they want to give play­ers to Chape on a free loan for the 2017 sea­son. They also say the club should not be rel­e­gated to the sec­ond di­vi­sion for three years as it re­cov­ers from the dis­as­ter.

AN­DRE PENNER » THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Chapecoense play­ers cel­e­brate at the end of a Copa Su­damer­i­cana semi­fi­nal soc­cer match against Ar­gentina’s San Lorenzo in Chapeco, Brazil, last Wed­nes­day. The soc­cer world is mourn­ing the crash of a char­tered plane in Colom­bia on Mon­day that car­ried the team and jour­nal­ists.

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