The Brazilian side has made a remarkable recovery since a devastating plane crash that killed 19 players and rocked the football world
Time has a way of healing even the most unbearable of pain.
November 29, 2016, was an unbearably painful day for the footballing world and one club in particular.
Chapecoense was rocked to its very core when a plane crash took the lives of a promising group of footballers who had captured the imagination of Brazilian fans with their Cinderella story, managing wages and expenses, all while putting together a budding power.
In 2009 Chape were all the way down in Serie D, but promotion to Serie A came in 2014 — and the team never looked back.
The club has racked up four state titles in the last decade and made their way in South America as well. In 2015 they made a run to the quarterfinals of the Copa Sudamericana, losing out to Argentine power River Plate.
Then came the magic of 2016, beating traditional powers San Lorenzo and Independiente as they played their way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, only to be declared champions after the horrific events that took place as the club traveled to first leg of the final against Atletico Nacional in Medellin, Colombia.
From there the club was thrown into disarray. With most of the playing staff, managerial staff and front office, including club president Sandro Pallaoro, killed in the crash, the questions were many. How could a team rebuild from such devastation? Was it even possible?
As late as December the club had no real squad. Hope seemed slim that there was a way back, at least in the short term, for Chapecoense.
Now, just seven months on from that fateful night in November, the club stand as a state champions of Santa Catarina, sit 10th in the Brazilian Serie A table, only saw their Copa Libertadores hopes ended by a forfeited match, and remain in contention to defend their Copa Sudamericana crown.
The success of the rebuilding process has been nothing short of stunning, leading one to wonder exactly how they’ve done it.
“The board did a great job in the choice of the athletes to set up the group,” Tulio de Melo, one of the players helping lead the current Chape side, told Goal. “At the beginning, nobody knew each other on the pitch, but during the Santa Catarina State League we were getting together, creating a force and improving every game. We have quality and could do something.
“We have to believe it,” he continued. “We know that the team is not big and will not fight for the title, but we have to take each game very seriously. The group is very humble and has no vanity. We are working hard and the group has individual and collective potential. We believe in ourselves and the results are happening”
Tulio himself was deeply impacted by the plane crash.
Having played for Chape in 2015, the attacker made a move to Sport Club do Recife last year, watching on as his former team-mates, his friends, fought their way to the final before having it all end so horrifically.
He decided to return to Chapecoense to help with the reconstruction process, and he carries with him the weight of having known the club before and after the crash.
“It was very difficult for me at the beginning (after returning to Chape) to have to go back to the same locker room and the stadium… It was very complicated by the memories,” he said. “I was very sad, but time is softening things.
“We will never forget what happened and what the athletes, most of whom were my friends, did for the club. We will never forget that. But we cannot regret this every day, or the sadness never passes. So we talked about this and we made a pact to play with joy and to honour our friends that died. And it worked out. We did it, and it worked. We want to honour all the victims of the tragedy. A football team needs to be happy. Football is about joy.”
With the weight of a grieving public on their shoulders, it would be easy to understand the current Chape players not being able to carry all the burden. But Tulio believes the players get a daily dose of extra motivation in the form of Neto, Alan Ruschel and Jackson Follmann, who survived the crash and are working daily so they can once again pull on the shirt and represent the club.
“They are sources of daily inspiration for us. We are always with them and they are awesome,” Tulio said. “Alan is already training normally as a player of the club, he does not have a certain date yet, but I think it will not be too long he is going to be back to playing games with us.
“Neto will need a little more time, but it is impressive. Sometimes we forget everything that happened to them, because they are training well and usually with us. We were very happy for that. But then we still see scars on (Neto’s) body and we remember everything that happened with them. It is amazing that they are with us, and well and training normally. They are sources of inspiration and we have to honour Chape.”
Throughout his interview with Goal, Tulio was, understandably, emotional.
But the subject of fellow striker Bruno Rangel, Chape’s all-time top scorer who perished in the accident, brought about a noticeable change in the 32-year-old, who made wanted to make it clear that his former team-mate would never be forgotten.
“Bruno was a great striker and a great person, I do not even think about becoming a top goalscorer, I think of scoring my goals and helping Chapecoense, cheer the fans and help the club and my team. If it ever happens that someone overtakes Bruno, it will not make any difference. Bruno’s place is intact, untouchable. He made his story here, which is marked by all eternity. He was a sensational guy,” Tulio said before a long pause.
“He will be the eternal Chape top goalscorer.”
Tulio and the new-look Chapecoense side will continue their journey in the Copa Sudamericana on June 28 with the first leg of their second-round clash with Argentine side Defensa y Justicia.