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In 2016, a catastrophic plane crash involving Brazilian club Chapecoense claimed the lives of 71 people and put a premature end to one of football’s biggest fairy-tale stories. Four years on from that fateful accident, the trauma remains ingrained, but Chapecoense has recovered and is on the verge of returning to the top flight.
“Up until the tragedy, the Chapecoense (story) really was a fairy tale,” Brazilian football expert Euan Marshall told The Sideliner. “This was a tiny club from a tiny town who, after years of smart planning and engaging their local fan base, managed to climb the divisions until eventually reaching the top flight.”
Chapecoense operated on the verge of bankruptcy for much of the 2000s, but under new ownership, it got its ducks in a row and started skyrocketing through the leagues. Between 2009 and 2013, the team from Chapecó went from playing in Série D to competing in Série B, and after just one season in the second tier, it qualified for Série A for the first time since 1979.
Unbeatable on home turf
Playing in the 20,000-capacity Arena Condá, the unfancied Chape made the most of its home advantage in Série A. With raucous crowds creating a suffocating, deafening atmosphere, traveling to Chapecó was a daunting task for even the most battle-hardened of sides.
“Their Arena Condá stadium is tight, the fans are right on top of you, and at that time they felt they could beat anyone on their home patch. Indeed, for anyone in the league, away to Chapecoense was one of the most feared fixtures,” Marshall recalled.
Chape was fearless in its approach, too. “They had an exciting, plucky squad, with plenty of pace and attacking intent,” said Marshall. “And another aspect that added to this fairy-tale element was that they were well liked by all. Coming from such a small city, they have no local rivals. The more established teams in their state had never paid notice to Chapecoense, so around that period they essentially became Brazilians’ second team.”
Verdão qualified for the 2016 Copa Sudamericana and dramatically claimed the scalps of Argentine giants Independiente and San Lorenzo on their way to the two-legged final, where they would have faced reigning Copa Libertadores champions Atlético Nacional from Medellín, Colombia.
Unfortunately, Chapecoense never got to play that finals series. On November 28, 2016, LaMia Flight 2933, carrying the team, reporters, and staff, crashed near Medellín, taking the lives of all but six passengers. In a noble gesture, Nacional forfeited their right to the title and Chape was awarded the trophy, but that was little consolation for what had been lost.
What followed was a touching outpouring of support from the global football community with clubs offering financial aid as well as providing players. Chapecó and Medellín have since forged a strong relationship and the former has managed to rebuild its team with loan players, academy graduates, and free transfers.
Chape managed to win its state championship in 2017 but was relegated from Série A last year, just a day before the third anniversary of the accident. The good news, however, is that Verdão looks a solid bet to bounce straight back, currently topping the Série B standings with only one loss to its name all season. Promotion is a realistic target and Chapecoense is once again prepared to overcome adversity.