Tears flow as Chapecoense return to action after plane crash tragedy
Emotional day for fans, survivors and relatives of the dead
Thousands of fans gathered under a blazing sun in southern Brazil on Saturday as Chapecoense played their first match since most of their players were killed in an air crash in Colombia in November.
The friendly against Palmeiras was the first game of the season for both sides but it was much more about symbolism and emotion than sport for a club looking to bounce back from one of football’s great tragedies.
The game was halted in the 71st minute to allow fans to scream their now famous “Vamos Chape!” chant in tribute to the players and staff who perished in a plane crash in Colombia in November.
The Arena Conda stadium was adorned with thousands of hand-made origami in the shape of hearts and tsurus, birds that signify health, good fortune and long life.
One banner behind the goals read, “Eternal Champions, kit man to the president”, a reference to the many players and backroom staff who died.
The survivors and their relatives took centre stage before a ball was kicked, with Jackson Follman, the goalkeeper whose leg was amputated as a result of the crash, being presented with the Copa Sudamericana trophy in a tearful ceremony.
Follman was one of only six people to survive the crash, which came as the Chapecoense squad approached Medellin to play Atletico Nacional in November’s Copa Sudamericana final.
The plane ran out of fuel and hit a mountainside, killing 71 people on board, many of them players, officials and reporters on their way to the game.
Chapecoense were awarded the Sudamericana title by CONMEBOL in December after the fixture was cancelled.
In an emotional ceremony, the wives of the dead players were given the medals their husbands would have received.
Follman, who was wheeled into the centre circle in his wheelchair, cried as he lifted the trophy, Chapecoense’s first ever continental title.
The ground was well short of its 20,000 capacity but those who did turn out said they hoped it was the start of a new era for the club.
“We couldn’t not be here,” Sizelda Filipi, a fan who lives around 30 kms from the ground, said shortly before kick-off.
“We’ll get very emotional and then we’ll move on. This is a restart.”
“I’m sure that those who have left us, if they are watching, would feel happy,” one of the survivors, left-back Alan Ruschel, told a news conference ahead of the game.
To rebuild the side, sporting director Rui Costa has recruited 22 players, most of them on loan.
He said that the game was “the strongest argument... that this club refused to die.”
The club’s new coach, Vagner Mancini, called the match “a pivotal moment.”
Ruschel and another surviving players, defender Helio Neto, are on the path to recovery and hope to play this season.