Chapecoense were South America’s fairytale, until they became South America’s nightmare.
The team from the small city of Chapecó, Brazil had gone from the lowly fourth division of Brazilian soccer in 2009, to boarding a flight for Medellín, Colombia on Nov. 29. There they were set to compete for the Copa Sudamericana, a title which spans all of South America. They never made it to Medellín, though.
The plane crashed into the Andes Mountains, with all initial signs pointing to an infuriatingly avoidable circumstance of loss of fuel. All told, 77 people boarded the plane for Medellín, including players, coaches, journalists and crew members. Of those 77, only six people survived: three players, one journalist and two crew members.
The incident caused shock and mourning around the world, but within the time of heartbreak another characteristic emerged, humanity. Indeed, this horrible tragedy, which has caused such despair, has also shined a light on why the sport of soccer is referred to as the beautiful game.
Almost immediately following the aftermath, Atletico Nacional, the team which Chapecoense was set to play in the final, demanded that Chapecoense be awarded the title. This decision was unanimously agreed upon by the Nacional players, and has been sent forward to the governing body of South American soccer for further evaluation.
In addition, fellow teams of the Brazilian first division sent out a statement in which they volunteered to loan their players to Chapecoense, without any fees. They have also put in a request to the Brazilian soccer federation to have Chapecoense be exempt from relegation for three seasons.
These efforts of solidarity are combined with countless tributes from around the world. These include Webley Stadium in London, the Eifel Tower in Paris and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro being lit up green, the team’s color. There were also moments of silence during practices and games around the globe. Fox Sports Brasil even televised 90 minutes of silence during the time in which the game was scheduled to be on-air.
It was the night of Wednesday, Nov. 30, however, inside the stadium of Atletico Nacional, in which the most powerful tribute took place.
That moment in time was supposed to be the scene for leg one of the Copa Sudamericana. Instead, it was a vigil for the fallen Chapecoense players and coaches, done by the fans of the opposing team, Atletico Nacional.
Atletico Nacional fans packed their 50,000-seat stadium and had thousands of people outside pay tribute. The players who were left off the Chapecoense roster for the final and therefore did not board the flight were welcomed as brothers by the Nacional fans. The Nacional fans chanted throughout the service “The Eternal Champions,” in reference to Chapecoense, in one of the most moving tributes ever seen.
The scene was somehow festive while still showing absolute reverence for the loss of life. The Nacional fans came out on that night to celebrate their champion, Chapecoense.
As someone who loves soccer, but more simply loves life, this tragedy has hit me hard. But the outpouring of emotion afterward has also reminded me why I love the sport so much. The culture that goes with the sport of soccer is unlike anything in not just any other sport, but any other walk of life.
The sport is indeed called the beautiful game for a reason, and that reason is not the pretty passing that is sometimes on display. No, the reason is something much deeper. It is a culture between players and fans that connects people across economic, ethnic, religious and political lines. With soccer, all of those statuses are wiped clean and every person shares one trait, a love of the game, and therefore a love of one another.
That is why this tragedy has hurt me, and so many people across the world, so much. And that is why despite most of the squad never reaching the field in Medellín, this Chapecoense team will be ‘The Eternal Champions.’ Vamos Chape. Go Chape.
James Justice is a broadcast and visual media major from Caldwell, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.