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Chapecoense Tragedy Brings Harmony to Brazil's Fractured Football Nation
RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s the kind of story that doesn’t bear thinking about. It's nigh on impossible to transcribe the feelings of grief, desperation and bereavement that have been brought to an entire city through fatally thoughtless behaviour.
By now, of course, the story of flight LaMia 933 has reverberated around the world. The plane carrying the Chapecoense team, along with non-playing members of staff and a group of journalists, ran out of fuel and crashed close to Medellin, Colombia. All but six of the 77 on board lost their lives.
As the story continues to develop, there has been the slimmest of silver linings hanging over Brazilian and world football. Full-back Alan Ruschel was able to squeeze his father’s hand and move his legs. Brazilian journalist Rafael Henzel’s condition is slowly improving.
On Saturday, a minute’s silence was held prior to the game between Atletico Nacional and Millonarios, in the quarter-finals of the Colombian championship.
Bodies have started to be returned to Brazil, and while this whole sorry event will never truly be put to rest emotionally by those most closely affected, at least some answers are being provided.
Confusion and grief have slowly given way to resentment and anger over the past few days, with the revelation that the airline, LaMia, opted to fly regardless of the flawed flight plan, per the Associated Press (h/t CBS News). That has been widely publicised in the Brazilian media, showing that the duration of the flight and the amount of fuel on board amounted to the same amount of time: four hours and 22 minutes.
The singularity of this horrific happening was highlighted on Saturday, when the collective wake at Chapecoense’s Arena Conda was held. Were you to look at the stadium on any given day, you could be forgiven for thinking you were not looking upon a top-flight arena in the country of the five-time world champions.
The stands have seen better days; they are steep, rickety old things that look like they could blow over with the right strength and direction of wind.
The Conda would typically not even come close to being full to its 22,600 capacity. In the 2016 Campeonato Brasileiro campaign, an average of 7,619 have come through the turnstiles to watch Chapecoense steady themselves in the top tier of Brazilian domestic football, where they have resided since 2014 in relative comfort despite an operating budget far below that of many of their fellow competitors.
That number doesn’t even put them in the top 20 if you take into account the first three divisions of the club game in this corner of the world. Their biggest crowd of the season, just over 17,500, came in the goalless draw in the semi-final of the Copa Sudamericana against San Lorenzo of Argentina, putting them into their first continental final, as well as making them the first club from the region to reach one.
On Saturday, it was estimated that around 100,000 arrived in Chapecoto pay their respects to those who lost their lives. In a show of how this story has reverberated around the world, around 1,000 of those were journalists, who descended on the rural southern Brazilian town to take the story around the globe.
And what they have witnessed is the coming together of people, of spontaneous harmony in one of the darkest hours in 21st-century Brazil.
Leandro Webster is a member of Gremio supporters' group, Gremiodo Prata, which was founded in 2008. He described the mood at the club and among the fans.
"We Gremistas were preparing for what should have been the greatest week in the last 15 years for the club," he said. "We would play the Copa do Brasil final at home with an advantage (3-1 from the first leg against Atletico Mineiro), which made a title possible, as well as the probable relegation of Internacional.
"All this expectation was forgotten on Tuesday morning, when we received news of the tragedy. The feeling is one of sadness, and no one is speaking of the relegation of a rival or the hunt for the Copa do Brasil."
On the surface, that may not seem surprising in the slightest. It would be seen as the natural reaction to an occurrence as extreme as this.
But that outpouring has stretched to every club in the Brasileiro Serie A and to the tiers of the football pyramid below. Well, almost all.
Ignoring the crass comments from Internacional vice-president Fernando Carvalho, who considered it acceptable to voice his concerns about his side’s relegation prospects following the air crash—going so far as to compare the two scenarios—the solidarity has been unanimous.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Corinthians, the 2015 league champions, changed the colour of their webpage to the green of Chapecoense.
Corinthians’ main rivals are Palmeiras, who also play in green. The day before the crash, Palmeiras had been crowned 2016 Brazilian league champions, following a 1-0 win against, in one of life’s inexplicably ironic twists of fate, Chapecoense.
The Corinthians-Palmeiras rivalry is one of the fiercest in Brazil. The idea that one of these clubs would switch the colours of their onlinepages, just days after those rivals had been crowned national champions, would previously have been considered unthinkable. But these are unprecedented times for the Brazilian game.
Immediately after the disaster, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) declared a seven-day period of mourning in national football. National president Michel Temer declared a three-day term for the country.
That meant the second leg of the final of the Copa do Brasil was postponed. As was the final round of national league matches, with both being put back a week.
Yet could we see a more profound effect than this initial period? Could these events be the trigger for a significant change in the attitudes of fans across Brazil and, in particular, the notorious torcidas organizadas, the organised factions who could reasonably be compared to the hooligans of the English game 20 to 30 years ago?
Andre Schmidt, a columnist for Brazilian sports daily Lance, has his doubts: "[The plane disaster] is something that changes the concept of life for everybody, even those who are not close to the victims or football.
"But unfortunately, I think that on the whole we will not see big changes. Proof of this is that two days after the plane crash, 70 Flamengo fans were arrested for fighting at a basketball game—among themselves."
However, the journalist went on to say that while the most fanatical may see no need to alter their behaviour, what we could see is changes among other supporters, both in the stadiums and in the petty bickering you are likely to encounter on social media.
"I believe that the posture of the common fan, who can sometimes be overzealous and exaggerate with a friend during a discussion, can change," he said. "They may think twice before swearing at a rival on social media or something similar. But the fans who go to the stadium to fight and cause confusion, unfortunately this won’t change."
Meanwhile, Globo Esporte writer Bernardo Pombo believes this whole sorry affair could change Brazilian football, if not perhaps quite in the way of the organizadas.
"This tragedy could change a lot of attitudes in Brazilian football," he said. "However, this initial impact could camouflage the true face of many of our directors. The fact that the vice-president of Internacionalcomplained about the postponement of the final round of matches, comparing the Chapecoense tragedy with his club’s battle against relegation, shows the all-too-selfish face of a good number of our executives."
Pombo went on to make a poignant argument regarding former player Dener.
"It’s worth remembering that one of the greatest players in the history of Brazil, Dener, died in a car crash in 1994, and for a long time his family were helpless," he noted. "We have to wait for the true reactions. This initial union can be great. But Brazil usually has a short memory. And in this case, the most beautiful example has come from the fans of Atletico Nacional."
Pombo is referring to the actions of the Colombian club in the aftermath of the tragedy. Atletico told CONMEBOL, the South American football confederation, that the Copa Sudamericana title should be awarded to Chapecoense. Even despite the circumstances, it was considered a huge gesture.
CONMEBOL have since confirmed Chapecoense will indeed be champions.
The winners of the Sudamericana—the continent's equivalent of the Europa League—earn a place in the following season’s CopaLibertadores, the South American answer to the Champions League. In other words, it's the most prestigious club title up for grabs.
As if backing up Pombo’s assertion, Vinicius Follmer, formerly part of one of the supporter groups linked to Internacional, Gremio’s biggest rivals, stated: "I guarantee you that if the opposite had occurred, no Brazilian club would have done half of what Nacional and its people have done for us Brazilians and for Chapecoense. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank these fantastic people."
Old habits die hard, the adage goes. And while there may be a temporary reprieve, even an event as shocking as this one may not live in the forefront of the collective memory for a tellingly long time. After all, Liverpool and Manchester United fans continue to taunt each other to this day over the Munich and Hillsborough disasters.
Relatively recently, Corinthians fans mocked Internacional supporters during a league encounter over the premature death of club idol Fernandao. The former Inter player and coach died in a helicopter crash on 7 June, 2014.
Extra columnist Gilmar Ferreira succinctly summed up the mood. Having lost colleagues and friends in the plane crash, I asked him, rather futilely, how he was. "That’s difficult to answer, Robbie," he responded. "But I’m alive, and that’s already a piece of good news."
How long that sentiment will last on Brazilian terraces still seems up for debate.