Brazilian soccer fans are devastated after learning members of the first division Chapecoense soccer team, recently hailed as the “Cinderella story” of Brazilian soccer, were on board a Colombian charter plane that crashed late Monday.
The team, from Brazil’s top league, was on its way to compete in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final, South America’s equivalent of the Europa League.
The flight was supposed to be a celebration – the Chapecoense team had just qualified for the biggest game in its history after overcoming Argentine club San Lorenzo. It was the first time the small club had reached the final of a major South American club competition.
“What was supposed to be a celebration has turned into a tragedy,” Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said.
In a brief statement on its Facebook page, the club said “may God accompany our athletes, officials, journalists and other guests travelling with our delegation.”
Heartbreaking images of team members who were not required to travel to the match quickly circulated on social media. Player Alejandro Martinuccio, who had been sidelined by an injury, said although the injury saved his life he was heartbroken.
“I feel profound sadness,” he said. “The only thing I can ask is prayers for the companions who were on the flight.”
Less than a week ago, the once little-known team was projected to become one of the most successful Brazilian clubs at the international level. Chapecoense only entered the first division Brazilian league in 2014, after rising from the lower-ranked fourth division.
According to ESPN FC, the quick rise from fourth division to a continental final was “an achievement which many bigger, more traditional clubs are unable to match.”
Chapecoense were the 21st largest club in Brazil in terms of revenue, bringing in $13.5 million in 2015, according to an annual rich list compiled by Brazilian bank Itau BBA. The club has built its success on a frugal spending policy that eschewed big money signings and instead concentrated on blending young talent and experienced players.
Their best-known player was Cleber Santana, a midfielder whose best years were spent in Spain with Atletico Madrid and Mallorca. Coach Caio Junior was also experienced, having managed at some of Brazil’s biggest clubs, Botafogo, Flamengo and Palmeiras among them
“They were the hope of our city,” said Jean Panegalli, 17, a student in Chapeco. “They played for love of the shirt and not for money. They played with the commitment that only those who have lived here know.”
Soccer fans and players from all over the world showed an outpouring of support for the team on social media Tuesday, as investigators began looking in to what caused the crash.The South American football federation suspended all games and other activities in light of the accident; meanwhile, Real Madrid and Barcelona teams held a minute of silence in honour of Chapecoense. The Colombian soccer team has also offered the cup title to Chapecoense in a show of solidarity.