One year on from that fateful night that claimed so many lives, Chapecoense have secured qualification to the Copa Libertadores. Life and football go on.
Emotion makes mankind a beautiful thing. It’s our ability not just to feel but the ability to articulate in words. And as I read I often find delight in the detail of things and revel in the ability to articulate it in words.
This, however, is a story far removed from delight. This is the story of men who conquered impossible odds, only to be denied, quite possibly, by greed. But in spite of all the attempts against the events that transpired, this is a story of hope.
This is the story of Chapecoense.
Bereavement, Loss and Grief.
Chapecoense were doing just that. A small football team based in the city of Chapeco, in the state of Santa Catarina, Chapeconese returned to the Brazilian Serie A for the first time in 36 years in 2014. As is the case with most small teams, Chapecoense had a threadbare following. However, as a collective, they complimented each other and played as a family enjoying a weekend kickabout. This attitude and camaraderie took them from obscurity to the finals of the Copa Sudamericana. For a city with a population of 200,000 making it to the showpiece football event was about as far as they thought they would go – but this squad knew they were meant to be in the history books together.
28th November, 2016: As the fate of LaMia Flight 2933 made it to the far reaches of the world, I remember how words failed me. There I was, mourning for a team that I had not heard of, from a place I had no inkling even existed. And so, I silently dug deep into the facts and I saw things that made me feel disgusted about what happened. “Planes don’t just fall out of the sky” is what everyone told me. And statistics backed it up, saying air travel is the safest mode of transport. But, something was amiss in this story; there was a reason the flight never made it. There was a knot in my stomach reading the entire story as it broke.
There’s something beautiful even in death. As the chapter of a human life closes, people come together, from all walks of life to mourn for the loss. When attending a funeral, you will see a smorgasbord of people and emotions on display – and all these lives affected by the loss of one among us. Sometimes, it’s difficult to mourn for those we did not know, and at other times it’s all about putting an arm around your fellow man or woman and hoping all will be well with the world.
71 people plummeted to their demise, even as across the world, people from far away lands watched on in horror. In a sport divided along the lines of regions and allegiances to clubs, all borders dissolved. The football community, and anyone connected to it by any emotional tether whatsoever, felt the loss of Chapecoense. We may not be able to ever see the players’ families or offer a helping word. But, in expressing our own emotion, we stand with them, all around the world.
Tragedy Strikes, Tragedy Unites
A long ball, from keeper to striker in the finale of the club competition. As the ball descends at what we perceive to be lightning speed, all players move in suspended motion. The ball gets a heavy touch and rolls out of play. But, there’s still hope. There will be another play and another way to score that winning goal. But, a few days before the epic Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional, Chapecoense goalkeeper Neto had a more morbid dream. A barren mountainside, wreckage all around, and him standing tall. And there was no coming back from that.
As LaMia Flight 2933 plummeted from the skies, Neto lived déjà vu like never before. A year later, words seem to not suffice as the tragedy flashes back in the memory. When Atletico Nacional heard of the tragedy, they moved to have Chapecoense declared winners of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana. The CONMEBOL heeded their request and the respect gained and the bond built between both clubs through this hardship is one that will remain forever. When the grief subsided, all of Chape drew a collective breath and paused. The palpable, all-encompassing grief as coffins were brought into the stadium and a minute’s silence held was now replaced by seething rage and a need to search for answers and a culprit.
Reliving the moments of horror just before your closest friends, people who feel like family, had their lives snuffed out brings unease and terror to most people. On board the aircraft, as every second seemed to extrapolate into a lifetime, the pilots must have been inspired by Chapecoense’s exploits on the field of play. Fighting machine tooth and nail in a cause as lost as trying to counter and make it 4-1 instead of 4-0, the pilots battled to save the lives of the Chape team. After all, Chapecoense had beaten rivals considered worthy scalps by everyone watching their football. Greats such as San Lorenzo, Independiente and more had been conquered on the way to this final. History will show their efforts were in vain, but the pilots are to be admired for their bravado right to the very end.
Ximena Suarez, an airhostess on the flight, recollects how the flight circled Medellin as the pattern was full. No space to land, no fuel to fly. How there was silence, pierced by questions and prayer. Then a steep descent followed by an impact. An impact that led to screaming. Here words fail Ximena, but all any of the survivors could do was shout for help.
Ximena Suarez was one of the lucky ones, and now has a tattoo of a LaMia flight heading for heaven, to remember the loss of those who could not make it to the final that day.
One-way Ticket To A New Beginning
In the modern world, there is no excuse for running a jet aircraft on wisps of fuel, never mind a dry tank. Aviation law dictates that it is not possible, but that’s exactly what unfolded for the pilots of LaMia Flight 2933. They were executed, just like the remaining departed on board that flight, by the greed of lesser men. The owner of LaMia had filed an estimated flight time of 4 hours and 30 minutes and sanctioned fuel for the same amount of time. An anonymous mechanic later came forward to give an even more damning indictment – this was not the first time LaMia had toyed with lives to earn a quick buck. The mechanic stated something along the lines of ‘I noticed Quiroga (a co-owner) in the hangar often. Atletico Nacional, Bolivia, Venezuela and Argentina had all flown with us and all flew with fuel on the edge to save money, for a bigger profit.’
As I read this testimony, I was disgusted and shocked. The pursuit of profit had trumped the preservation of human life. This was the devil incarnate. On the night of the scheduled final, passion gave way to peace, and fans throughout the world joined in paying tribute to angels that did nothing but put their best foot forward, striking a ball and bringing joy to hundreds. Dressed all in white, men, women and children filled the stadium with candles as Atletico Nacional bowed their heads and awarded the title to a team that no longer existed.
In the year since, Chapecoense have slowly started to move on. In an amazing show of solidarity, clubs across the Brazilian Serie A approached the federation to make Chapeconese immune from relegation for three seasons. Their president, Ivan Tozzo, rejected the offer. Instead, players from all clubs across the country were loaned out, for free, to help rebuild a team that suffered an unspeakable loss.
On December 4th 2017, precisely one year and a day after the funeral at Chape’s Arena Conda, solidarity and the human spirit were again on full display at the Arena Conda as the football club marked a year since that fateful night.
Tulio De Melo, a former Chape player who had rejoined when the club needed a new squad, scored the goal that gave them victory against Coritiba, with literally the final kick of the match.
One year on from that fateful night that claimed so many lives, Chapecoense have secured qualification to the Copa Libertadores – South America’s premier club competition. The memory of LaMia Flight 2933 lives on in the people left behind by those who never made it to Medellin. And, in the team that has been rebuilt in their name, we see the beauty of human nature. The world came together to bring Chapecoense back to its feet, and, even if life will never be the same, it will go on.