On Wednesday night, 161 days after they were originally due to meet each other in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, Chapecoense and Atlético Nacional finally took to the field together in Medellín’s Atanasio Giradot stadium. The game was the second leg of the Recopa Sudamericana, the annual tie between the winners of the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana.
Chapecoense had won the first leg 2-1 in the Arena Condá in Chapecó, but in the second minute of this game Atlético drew level on aggregate as ‘keeper Arthur Moraes failed to make a simple-looking save from Dayro Moreno. After 30 minutes Atlético extended their lead with a fine goal set up by midfield maestro Macnelly Torres and finished off by Andrés Ibargüen.
In the second half Chapecoense came out in search of a comeback but this left them open and Atlético put the game beyond the Brazilians with one more each from Colombian international Moreno and Ibargüen. There was time for Túlio de Melo to pull one back for Chapecoense, a goal cheered by everyone in the ground, but it was too little too late.
Quite apart from the result, it was a hugely emblematic, emotionally charged affair. That original game, as we all know, never happened because of the horrific accident the Brazilian team suffered on the way to Medellín, that killed 19 of their players and 23 of the club’s other staff.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash the behaviour of Atlético Nacional and its fans created a bond between these two clubs that will never be broken. Atlético fans packed the Atanasio Giradot at the time the Sudamericana final was scheduled to happen and paid a beautiful, heartfelt, moving tribute to the deceased.
Atlético directors also requested that Chapecoense be given the Sudamericana, which apart from being symbolic was also helpful in the Brazilian side’s recovery. It gave them the right to play in the Recopa and, more importantly, the Libertadores. The money from these competitions has been vital in the mammoth rebuilding job.
It was merely good fortune that the winners of last year’s Libertadores happened to be the very same Atlético Nacional that Chapecoense should have met in the Sudamericana final. The resulting Recopa provided a chance to achieve a sense of what our American cousins might term ‘closure’. For this game fans of both sides mixed in the stands and there were banners and flags paying tribute to the dead carried by Brazilians and Colombians alike.
Chapecoense’s road to recovery has been an awe-inspiring one so far. Incredibly, just over five months on from the crash, this was their second chance to win a trophy in the last four days. And they had already taken the first.
On Sunday smiles were brought back to the faces of the once devastated populace of Chapecó as their team won the Santa Catarina State championship for the second year running, a first such back-to-back triumph for the club. Only one of this year’s starting finalists, Moisés Ribeiro, played in last year’s victorious side.
The state championships do not have the significance they once did but the win was confirmation that Chapecoense are moving along the right path in their comeback from the tragedy.
That process of recuperation started just days after the accident and the club’s backroom staff and directors have worked tirelessly ever since to get the club into a position where avoiding relegation from Série A of the Campeonato Brasileiro is a realistic prospect. 20 hour working days were the norm as they searched for players to build their new squad.
Chapecoense were offered immunity from relegation for three years in the aftermath of the disaster but nobly refused the proposal, relying merely on their own sporting merit. This decision is perhaps indicative of the way in which the club have gone about the whole process.
Before the accident Chapecoense were known for their intelligent use of limited but committed players who bought into the team’s identity and work ethic. There was a strict wage cap which meant that the club had, and remarkably still has, the lowest debt of any in the national top division.
Despite offers from a variety of stars to play for free, the directors opted to rebuild the club using the same philosophy that had taken them from obscurity to national prominence over the past decade. In total, 25 new players have been signed, many on loan from bigger clubs, in addition to a few journeymen and hungry youngsters.
It has not all been plain sailing, however. In the first few weeks of the Santa Catarina championship they struggled for form and at one point went four games without a win before turning it around during the second phase of the competition.
The Libertadores, predictably, has also proved difficult. Chapecoense won their first game against Venezuela’s Zulia but have since lost at home to Lanús, drawn at home with Nacional of Uruguay and lost 3-0 away to the Uruguayans in Montevideo. Qualification for the knock-out stage may well be beyond them.
In recent weeks, though, the team has started to find some consistency and new manager Vagner Mancini seems to have found his best starting 11. Palmeiras loanee João Pedro has been moved from right-back into the middle of midfield to partner Moisés Ribeiro, which has freed up Luiz Antonio and given the side more balance. Left-back Reinaldo and centre-back Douglas Grolli, who requested to return to Chape on loan from his parent club Cruzeiro, have also stood out as a fantastic signings.
This week Chapecoense have added more quality to their squad with the signing of Venezuelan international Seijas on loan from Internacional, and they will also be hoping for a few more new additions before the Campeonato Brasileiro gets under way this weekend.
On Saturday evening they will face a tough test as they travel to São Paulo to face Campeonato Paulista champions Corinthians. The first few weeks of the season could prove vital as they look to get enough points on the board to give themselves a chance of avoiding relegation. The calendar, however, has not smiled upon them and they face several very difficult games in the opening rounds.
Chape are a shining example of how to run a football team in a country where many club presidents are irresponsible in the extreme. If they do somehow manage to steer clear of the drop, and book themselves a fifth consecutive season in the top flight, it will be nothing short of miraculous. And, more importantly, it will be all their own doing. I know I’ll be cheering for them.