On the 28th of November, a small soccer team was en route to the most competitive tournament they had ever faced, Copa Sudamericana, as rising stars in the region, when at approximately 10:15 p.m., eight miles short of its endpoint at Medellin Airport, the plane carrying the entire team ran out of gas, experienced complete electrical failure, and slammed into the side of a mountain. There were six survivors: three players, a flight technician, a flight attendant, and a journalist covering the team’s performance in the cup. The crash killed 71 people.
The news had jolted Chapeco, the small Brazilian hometown of the Chapecoense soccer team. The soccer club had been a huge component of the cultural fabric of the town, much of the community coming out to see every game. They had been the pride of their people, and as of late, had not been a cause for disappointment. They had enjoyed an unprecedentedly successful season, and the Copa Sudamericana (South American Cup) was the most anticipated game yet, as they were arriving as the hopeful underdogs, new to the competition and expected to have a fighting chance of getting far, at least for newcomers. However, the opportunity would never be presented to them, and they would arrive home-mourned instead of celebrated-to a sorrowing town, instead of a rejoicing one.
As if nature itself had seen this gut-wrenching sorrow and wept, two days after the crash, the vigil found in the team’s stadium awaiting the coffined bodies of the lives lost was drenched in torrential rainfall, yet a full stadium stood there, waiting to pay respects to their fallen heroes.
Some mourners stood out from the crowd. Amanda Machado, former fiancé of one of the players, stands forlornly by the coffin of her former to-be-wed. The wedding was scheduled for the days following the game, the day before the vigil, and she wears his wedding ring around her neck, holding her two year old son, Bernardo. Of her son, she tearfully yet firmly states that “He is the little piece of his father that has remained. I will raise him knowing that his father was the most extraordinary man.”
A player who had been fortunately sidelined, and had not traveled with the players, when asked about his response to the tragedy confessed with his voice beginning strong, “On Monday, on the first night I went to bed after the tragedy, I lay in bed and kissed my son,” he paused, “and thought how many of my friends won’t have the opportunity any more to kiss and hug their children.” His speech faltered, rising softly and breaking, tears springing to his eyes. His best friends were on that plane.
However, though these people have an arguably more personal connection to the tragedy, every fan of the Chapecoense team is suffering. A loyal fan, obviously anguished, admitted, “It is really hard to speak. We came to all the games. We’d come to the stadium and sit right in the same spot, and we came here today. We sat here, but we know that this weekend, next week, our fighting team won’t be here anymore in this stadium.” This is the devoted love that the community of this soccer team has demonstrated, through support, and now through grief.
To the rest of the world, this was a tragic event. After all, any event when 70-odd lives are lost needlessly to something as simple as running out of gas is an event that requires a moment of reverence for the loss of life, and an appreciation for one’s own. However, this is not a distant event for the hometown community of Chapeco. This is a brutal wound in the town’s very essence. To go from nervous, hopeful support for your team to utter destruction of it on one fateful day is a ferociously cruel turn of events. It is always heartbreaking to see such strong, united support that likely provided buoyancy to the team’s success translate into stricken sadness.
Some could say, that such fervent support is a frivolous waste of time. It’s just sports, right? Closer to home, the image of the fervent sports lover is dominated by the pre-game, post-reasoning cliché of an American football watcher. The following of a sports team is usually dismissed as an unneeded pursuit, one that means nothing now and will mean nothing in the future. Why should we be so invested in the success of a group of people playing sports we played as children? Why do we care? Why did the devotees of the Chapecoense support them as strongly as they did, with fans coming out game after game, fully committed to their team? Simply, it was a community event. Every night, everyone was there. The game was the sight to see, the Chapecoense the team to support. Who would want to be left out from the entire community’s passion? Who would want to be excluded from that?
The soccer team united the town in a love for a common sport and team. It inspired a shared support that only grew with the pain and hardship of this tragic plane crash. The town of Chapeco is a united front in these sorrowful days. This simple love of a sports team linked this town together, a concept which can be seen almost universally. Every fan of anything knows the family they have found in others who share their passion. The crux of fandom is in community, common love for one thing.
The tragic and heart-wrenching loss of the men and women on that plane is something that should never be forgotten or disrespected, but hope lies in the fact that the community can rebuild their team in honor of the old one, and the team’s legacy can live on, providing remembrance for the lost and community to the town that supported them.