This week would have been the most distinguished week in the history of a football club in Brazil. Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, a much lesser known club in Brazilian footballing ecosystem, were all set to compete for their first ever continental final. The team had boarded a commercial flight to Colombia where they would meet Atletico Nacional in the final of the Copa Sul-Americana. Little did they know that they would make the headlines but for entirely different reasons.
The plane they were travelling in crashed. Among the 81 people on board, 76 died while five are severely injured. Only three members of the team survived the crash – the rest of the team weren’t as lucky. They all passed away on the spot.
The mood amongst the team members before boarding the flight had been buoyant as was evident from the videos and photos posted on the numerous social networking platforms. And why not? Having defeated strong opponents in the preliminary rounds, the team was brimming with confidence ahead of the two-legged final with the mighty Atlético Nacional. They did have a good reason for all the merriment.
The occasion itself was momentous. Chape had secured their highest ever finish in the top division – they had clambered over clubs which had greater financial strength and far more illustrious histories. Their rise in the last three years since promotion has been phenomenal.
A merger between two amateur clubs resulted in the foundation of the Chape in the 1970s. Success followed almost immediately as within five years of coming into existence they went on to win the local state championship. However, their success was restricted to regional events only until recently they climbed the ranking ladder through the Brazilian divisions.
However, in 2008 they reached their nadir – not being able to qualify for the fourth division was a black letter day in the club’s history. This failure though was only a momentary blip in the club’s rise.
Since 2008, Chapecoense have improved with every passing year – third in in Série D, seventh, fifth and third in Série C, second in Série B, 15th, 14th and with one game of this season remaining, ninth in Série A, chronologically.
The story is one of overcoming all the odds. A football team from a small, unknown city fighting it out with the biggies of the football-loving country. Their squad is a modest one with Cléber Santana being the only relatively known player. Their homely stadium Arena Condá is lacking in capacity and infrastructure to play host to a major final. As a result, the return leg of the final of Copa Sul-Americana was to be held in Curitiba, 400km away from Chapecó.
Quite unsurprisingly, they had drawn comparisons with Leicester City, the reigning Premier League champions. The coach, Caio Júnior, was keen on embarking on a similar journey as Leicester – his team was indeed similar in many ways, punching so far above their weight.
“Our team reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title,” he said after a league win over Fluminense. “I want to make a mark this season with this club, this group of players.”
And they were on course to achieving something similar in the Sul-Americana. The team rarely produced brilliant displays – in the round of 16 they went through on penalties while the semi-finals saw them winning via away goals. But their work ethic and discipline were commendable in every fixture.
Cleber Santana was, perhaps, the most valuable player in the setup. Although the team was mostly made up of organised, honest triers, they had been made to look like definite winners by Santana.
And Nacional’s style of play seemed made for Santana. The Colombian side plays with big sluggish centre-backs who are positioned deep due to their lack of pace and a single midfielder who acts as the defensive screen in front of the two defenders. Thereby, there would be a lot of space to be exploited, and Santana would have imposed his quality on the proceedings.
And if custodian Danilo, who is a fan-favourite, pulled out some heroic saves as he so often does, if William Thiego could lead the defence line, if Josimar and Gil could control the midfield, if Thiaguinho, Lucas Gomes or Ananias ran with blistering pace on the flanks, and if Bruno Rangel or Kempes could capitalise on the chances, then it might have ended with Chapecoense winning the Copa Sudamericana – the fairy-tale ending that the story deserved.
To watch the video of the players of Chapecoense celebrating the semi-final victory was like watching a group of men who are very close to achieving all that they have ever dreamt of. Cleber Santana and his teammates boarded the flight to Medellin harbouring hopes of transforming their childhood dreams into reality, till the cruellest spin of the wheel of the fortune engulfed everyone in tragedy.