Chapecoense: A city mourns its fallen soccer team


CHAPECO, Brazil — They came here because the pain is everywhere, and there is nowhere else to go.

They came to the stadium to mourn their heroes, lost in a plane crash only a few agonizing days ago. They came to cry and embrace, to put up murals and photos, to light candles.

Some came just to stand and stare at the field.

“It’s so sad what’s happened to all of us,” said Grace Cansian, through tears. “Our champions.”

Arena Conda, usually such a loud place, was near silence on Friday as hundreds of people arrived to await the bodies of 19 players from the Chapecoense football club. The team was on its way to Colombia on Monday for the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana. Their plane never made it. Of the 77 on board, only six survived. Nearly two-dozen of the dead are journalists. The entire coaching staff was lost.

The Copa Sudamericana final was to be the the biggest moment in the history of the soccer club. Founded in 1973, Chapecoense has achieved only modest success. As recently as 2009 they were competing in Series D of the Brazilian soccer league. They’d only reached Series A, the highest level, in 2014, and the club has never won a title at any level.

The Sudamericana would have been their first continental final in team history. Chape, as the team is known, was scheduled to face Colombia’s Atletico Nacional in a two-game set beginning Wednesday. The first game was to be played in Medellin, Colombia, the second not in Chapeco but in nearby Curitiba. The site had been changed because Arena Conda, which has a capacity of 22,000, was deemed too small for an international final.

Residents of Chapeco mourn the loss of their soccer team. (Yahoo Sports)
Residents of Chapeco mourn the loss of their soccer team. (Yahoo Sports)

Readying for a monster celebration, this entire town of roughly 200,000 is now nearly silent. The team logo is emblazoned on many if not most buildings, now covered with black cloth. Children have hung drawings on fences, of soccer players in tears. Flags are at half-mast. Businesses are open but few people inside have slept and some have hardly eaten. A tragedy felt all over the globe has overwhelmed this mostly rural region of southern Brazil where airplane luggage is carried to baggage claim via small tractor.

As fans milled about Arena Conda on Friday, a truck pulled up with planks of wood for Saturday’s wake, when the coffins of players and coaches will be presented for a viewing inside the stadium. Each hour doesn’t seem to ease the pain, and yet it brings the pain of Saturday even closer.

Cansian, who has lived here all her life, came to the stadium in her team jersey, put her hands to her lips, and prayed as she cried. She could hardly get the words out.

“We are suffering,” she said. “Chapeco is suffering. We hope God will help us. All of the people who live in Chapeco – only God can help us.”

As she spoke, fans nearby began to sing, “We Always Remember Our Chapecoense.” She began to sob, her shoulders heaving.

A memorial has been erected in memory of the Chapecoense soccer club. (Yahoo Sports)
A memorial has been erected in memory of the Chapecoense soccer club. (Yahoo Sports)

The songs for the team were spirited, but they eventually gave way to more quiet. And more crying.

It is possible that Saturday’s memorial will bring some healing, when the players will finally be home. But the shock is still too fresh for most. This is not like Rio or Sao Paolo; this is a small city where the players walked and shopped and dined among the fans. In the middle of town, there is still an enormous mural celebrating a great 2016 season and looking forward to 2017. Now it’s unclear if and when there will be soccer here again.

Brazilian stars like Ronaldinho have offered to play here for free, and the offer is deeply felt, but the loss is too great for most. The jerseys cannot be filled by anyone. The players, and part of the soul of this small city, are gone.

“The city is very quiet,” said Luis Alberto Felicette, “without movement.”

A few blocks away from the stadium, as a few pedestrians walked through the midday heat toward the Arena, a speaker blared the chorus of a Pink Floyd song.

“How I wish … how I wish you were here.”

(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)