Joshua Law –
Last Tuesday morning I awoke with the full intention of finishing an article I had started the previous afternoon. It was about a relatively unknown team from the South of Brazil named Associção Chapecoense de Futebol and was supposed to be a celebration of their success in reaching the final of the Copa Sul-Americana just seven years after their very first season in Série D, the bottom tier of the Brazilian national league system.
But what should have been a week of intense joy for the residents of Chapecó, a small but growing city of 200,000 people in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, has turned into a period of unimaginable suffering. Seventy-one lives, and with them hundreds of thousands of dreams, had been brought to a premature end in the early hours of the morning.
I will spare you further details of the crash here, more than enough has been said elsewhere. Instead I would like to explain and pay tribute to what those people achieved in the period leading up to their deaths and tell you why the team had become the darlings of this football-mad nation.
It was to be another story of a valiant underdog fighting their way to the very top in a year that has given us the joys of seeing Leicester claim the Premier League, Independiente Del Valle make it to the final of the Copa Libertadores, and Iceland and Wales go deep into the tournament at the European Championships.
Chapecoense were not quite the Leicester of Brazil
Chapecoense have been referred to as the ‘Brazilian Leicester’—even their inspirational coach Caio Júnior, amongst those who perished in the accident, compared them to the English Premier League champions. In a TV interview in September he stated; “Our team really reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title. I want to make a mark this season with this club, this group of players.” These words now seem all the more poignant.
In truth though, their story is not quite the same as the Foxes’. The Midlands side were well-established and had a long history in the top two divisions of English football. Chapecoense had come from almost nothing.
A decade ago, the club was playing in the local Santa Catarina leagues, an equivalent perhaps to the regionalised seventh tier of the English football pyramid. They were also mired in debt, a story far too common for clubs up and down this continent-sized nation, and their prospects of survival as an organisation looked fairly bleak.
Then a group of local businessmen, all from the meat production industry on which Chapecó’s economy relies, came together to pull the club up off its knees. They paid off the debts and restructured the club, implementing a system of meticulous financial planning that is rarely seen in Brazilian football.
This is a significant part of the reason why fans of many other clubs look to the Verdão do Oeste, as they are affectionately known by their fans, as a source of inspiration for what can be achieved by a small club through sound financial management.
The unlikely rise of Chapecoense
The new regime had a swift positive effect and Chapecoense took the Santa Catarina state title in 2007. In 2008 they had a poor year in the state championship but were back on form in 2009, finishing as runners-up to Avaí, traditionally one of the bigger teams from their home state, and thus booking their place in the 2009 inaugural edition of Série D, the newly formed bottom rung of the ladder in the national leagues.
This good form in the early part of the year carried over into their first national campaign since 1978. Série D has a Champions League-like format and they finished top of their group of four teams. Chape then progressed through three further two-legged knock-out rounds and to the semi-finals, thereby securing promotion to Série C at the very first attempt.
The third tier did not prove a step too far as some had predicted, and they progressed to the quarter-finals in their first season, where they were excruciatingly knocked out on away goals by Ituiutaba, when a win would have given them a ticket into Série B.
In 2011 Chape again won the Santa Catarina state championship, the club’s fourth title, but they could not quite match this success in national competition. The format of Série C was slightly different to the previous year; with two group stages instead of a group stage followed by knock out rounds, but the result was the same. A third place finish in their group in the second phase meant they again missed out on a place in Série B by the narrowest of margins.
After these two years spent knocking on the proverbial door, Chapecoense finally made the big breakthrough into the second tier in 2012. The competition reverted to the old format and Chapecoense qualified for the quarter-finals, finishing third in their section. There they faced Luverdense and effectively secured promotion to the Série B in the first game of the two-legged tie, winning 3-0 at home in the Arena Condá. Luverdense won the return leg 1-0 but it was too little, too late.
Chapecoense were through to the semi-finals and had booked their place in the second tier. This is a hugely important step up in the Brazilian system because it guarantees a share of the television money and thus far more financial security.
By this time even more local businesses had started to support the club financially, seeing an opportunity to make a name for themselves on a national level. Amongst them was Aurora, a powerful cooperative of local meat producers, whose support, combined with the television money, allowed Chapecoense to raise their strictly enforced salary cap and gave the club a solid base from which to work.
Even so, nobody associated with the club could have predicted what was to come next.
The Série B campaign the following year was beyond all expectations, with Chapecoense finishing second behind only São Paulo giants Palmeiras, who had suffered an unanticipated relegation from the top-flight the year before. The Santa Catarina side finished above traditionally bigger clubs such as Sport, Avaí and Ceará, and star striker Bruno Rangel, one of the players who lost their lives last week and who had turned down big-money contracts in the Middle-East to stay with the club, scored an incredible 31 goals in 38 games.
Série A was the stuff of dreams
For them to reach Série A so soon after almost failing as a club, was the stuff of dreams for the residents of Chapecó and caught the attention of the whole country. However, as a club with still fairly limited resources, from the smallest city to play host to a top-division side, they were immediately cast as the favourites to go down. Even now, with considerably more money in the coffers than there was in 2013, the aforementioned salary cap stands at 100 thousand reais a month (roughly $29,000), far lower than the wages paid by more powerful clubs.
Once more though, they defied the odds. A poor start to the 2014 season was followed by a spell of good form that saw wins over colossal clubs such as Palmeiras, Internacional, Flamengo and São Paulo. Their efforts proved sufficient to keep them in the top-division and even to give them a first chance at international competition in the 2015 Copa Sul-Americana.
In this competition they went to the quarterfinal stage and fell only to Argentine powerhouse River Plate. This was really the start of the nation’s love affair with Chapecoense and was when they started to become, as many have said, everybody’s second team.
The 2015 domestic season saw another relegation scrap in the league, but the team eventually finished in fourteenth spot, guaranteeing themselves another shot at the Copa Sul-Americana.
This year they had gone from strength to strength in the league, never looking in real danger of the drop and amassing a club record 55 points in the 37 games before the fatal crash, enough to put them ninth in the table. The, at times, virtuoso performances of captain and star player Cléber Santana, formerly of Atlético Madrid, were vital this time around. It is an incredible achievement, given their monthly wage bill of just 2 million reais, a fifth of that of champions Palmeiras and a third of the outlay of São Paulo who sit two places below them in the table.
Chapecoense’s international campaign was remarkable
It was their campaign in international competition, though, that had once again drawn all the attention. In the first round of the Sul-Americana, where Brazilian clubs always face a team from the same country, they dispatched Cuiabá 3-2 over the two legs, guaranteeing themselves the chance to face international opposition.
In the round-of-16, they encountered seven-time winners of the Copa Libertadores Independiente of Argentina, nicknamed the ‘King of Cups’. Chapecoense refused to bow to royalty and sent the Argentines home on the wrong end of a 5-4 penalty shootout score-line after two 0-0 draws in the home and away legs. Keeper Danilo, for a long time reported as a survivor of the accident only to die of his injuries after being rescued, made himself the hero of a marathon shootout, pulling out four saves, including the two vital stops during sudden death.
The football was not pretty, Chapecoense defended deep and looked to strike on the counter-attack as they had done through much of their stay in the upper echelons of South-American football, but it was certainly effective.
In the quarters they were up against Colombians Junior Barranquilla, another club far bigger than the Verdão do Oeste. Again, though, Chapecó’s guerreiros were unfazed by the might of the opposition. A 1-0 deficit from the away leg in Colombia was easily overturned by the Chapecó as they ran out 3-0 victors. It was a terrific attacking performance in the driving Santa Catarina rain and each goal sent the crowded Arena Condá into raptures.
The semi-final drew them against the might of San Lorenzo, 2014 winners of the Copa Libertadores, who can count Argentina’s first-choice left-back Emanuel Mas, ex-Newcastle man Fabricio Coloccini and Paraguayan international Nestor Ortigoza amongst their ranks.
Chapecoense reverted to type, drawing 1-1 in the away leg after a gritty, determined, counter-attacking performance and drawing again nil-nil at home. It was enough to see them through on away goals. The second leg, in particular, was a backs-to-the-wall display of defensive determination that culminated in a sensational reaction save from Danilo in the dying seconds of the game that was celebrated like a goal. He was again the protagonist, booking Chapecoense’s place in the final, the first final for a Brazilian club in an international competition since Ponte Preta reached the same stage of this competition in 2013, and making them national heroes.
After this game, the celebrations were so raucous that, according to those in attendance, the concrete stands of Chapecoense’s modest stadium shook with the rhythm of the chanting hoards that were packed to the rafters. They had just won the biggest game in their history and were about to move on to an even greater challenge against Atlético Nacional.
The final should have been the culmination of a wonderful tale
The final should have been the culmination of this wonderful tale and the zenith of the achievements not only of the club but also of the whole city. As we now know all too well, that chance was cruelly snatched from their grasp.
For the families and friends of the deceased, this week will have seemed a damnable eternity, but for Associção Chapecoense de Futebol the hardest task still lies ahead. They now have to regroup and try to rebuild a team that is capable of maintaining their place in Série A. The story of Torino, after their own air disaster in 1949, is proof that this will be a supremely difficult proposition.
There have been offers of free loans from other Brazilian sides, and even some European clubs, as well as players like Ronaldinho and Eiður Guðjohnsen saying that they will come out of retirement to play. But these can only be temporary solutions.
Chapecoense will have to build up their own permanent squad from a base of just ten senior professionals, one of whom, the goalkeeper Nivaldo who has been at the club throughout their magnificent rise, will retire after playing just one more game.
The fact that Conmebol have decided to award the Copa Sul-Americana title to Chapecoense, at the request of opponents Atlético Nacional, will help in this regard as it entitles them to place in next year’s Copa Libertadores, helping to attract players and supporters, as well as a total of US$4.8 million in prize money. As the winners of the Sul-Americana, they will also meet the winners of the Libertadores, the very same Atlético Nacional, at some point next year in what promises to be a tear-jerking encounter.
In addition to this, the CBF has said it will donate 5 million reais to help with the rebuilding efforts as well as organising a friendly between Brazil and Colombia early next year, the proceeds of which will all go to the club.
The road ahead, without doubt, will be long and hard, but hopefully, with a little help from the wider football community, in addition to the resolve and determination that they have shown throughout their stupendous rise, Chapecoense will once again be back on top of South American football in years to come.
Joshua Law (@JoshuaMLaw) is a Londoner residing in São Paulo who makes ends meet as a freelance journalist. He specialises in Brazilian and South American football but also writes about social and political issues. He loves looking at numbers and graphs, whether to do with politics or the beautiful game, and has a special penchant for overweight footballers. You can follow his Brazilian football website on Twitter @FootyCanarinho.