A year after Brazil’s Chapecoense football club was all but wiped out in an air crash on their way to play the game of their lives, the team is winning again – and daring to think of the future.
Less than two weeks ago, the reconstructed team, risen from the ashes of that tragedy, was celebrating victory that assured it retained its place in the Brazilian first division.
The new players and the survivors from the crash in the mountains outside Medellin once more filled the old changing room with laughter and chanting.
For sure, this remarkable comeback couldn’t ever match the euphoria the Chapeco club experienced on November 23, 2016, when the minnow of Brazilian football made history by reaching the final of the regional Copa Sudamericana.
For a humble, scrappy little club from southern Brazil, that night seemed a dream.
But five days later, the excited players and coaches flew to Colombia – and to their deaths when the plane ran out of fuel.
Of 77 people aboard, 71 were killed, including 19 players, 14 coaching staff, nine managers and 20 journalists.
The shock brought Chapeco to a standstill and might have seemed sure to finish the club. Yet the survivors decided they had to look ahead.
“We were determined to find a way of moving forward. There was a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, but we never thought of abandoning football,” Nivaldo Constante, a goalkeeper who was not on the plane and retired after the crash, told AFP.
A last-minute change of plan saved Constante from boarding the fatal flight.
After the event, he felt destroyed by shock. But the new season was starting in a month and there was no one else to get the team going again.
Constante answered the call.
“We spent 20 days from eight in the morning to 10 at night running after agents and players until we finally managed to get together 22 players,” he said. “It was very complicated but we managed to build a new team.”
Three players survived the crash – goalkeeper Jakson Follmann, Helio Neto and Alan Ruschel – although Ruschel is the only one who has been able to play again.
Several widows of players have been prominent in criticising the club for not doing enough to remember the dead or to help the survivors, although the club leadership insists it is doing everything it can, while also pushing forward.
But the wider footballing world has not forgotten Chapecoense.
Ruschel was in the team when it played a charity match against mighty Barcelona, sharing the field with the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez on August 7 in Camp Nou.
Another of the Brazilian survivors, journalist Rafael Henzel, says Ruschel “lit up life for many people with his show of hope and determination.”
You could say the same for Henzel. The journalist who faced death says he has two birthdates now: his actual birthday in 1973 and the day of rebirth – November 29, 2016.
Follmann lost a leg in the crash and defender Neto spent a month in hospital, but they have both reinvented themselves at the heart of Chapecoense’s comeback.
A still fragile Neto was there in the changing room to welcome new players on January 6, urging them to play and live to the maximum. Follmann had to learn to walk again but also took on the role of club ambassador.
With the other team survivors, whom he calls his “brothers” as best men, he and his fiancee Andressa finally celebrated the wedding that had been brutally delayed.
The three men hugged and chanted the club chant that once spurred them on in on-field heroics and now helps them get through the game of life itself: “Vamos, vamos, Chape!” – “let’s go, let’s go Chape!”