The home city of the Brazilian soccer club Chapecoense is better known as the heartland for poultry farming than for sporting glory. The team’s home stadium has just 22,000 seats — many of which were often empty until this year’s remarkable run to the finals of one of South America’s premier tournaments.
On the Chapecoense fan page on Twitter, there had been a steady stream of congratulations as the team headed for the biggest match in its 33-year history.
In an instant, it was replaced with expressions of grief, horror and reposts of the final images from smiling players aboard the doomed flight that crashed into a mountainside in Colombia late Monday, killing most of the team's members and dozens of other passengers.
In a nation where soccer is part of the lifeblood, the widely ignored Chapecoense — without a single player on Brazil’s famed national team — had risen this year to a rarefied place on the front pages of sports dailies and among soccer commentators usually musing over the top teams and international stars.
Chapecoense was on its way to Medellín, Colombia, play in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional on Wednesday. The tournament is South America’s second-biggest club competition after the Copa Libertadores.
Chapecoense clawed its way into Brazil’s first division in 2014 but has never made a push into the top tier. It currently occupies ninth place. But it shined for the Copa matches — bringing comparisons to tiny Iceland’s surprise run to reach the European Championship's final eight last summer.
Chapecoense — known widely as Chape — beat major clubs such as Argentina’s San Lorenzo and Independiente on its way to the finals. Chape’s home stadium — the Arena Conda in Chapeco, about 800 miles south of Rio de Janeiro — was deemed too small to accommodate the fan surge on the scheduled return match against Atletico Nacional.
Instead, the match planned for next Tuesday had been moved to the Copa Sudamericana final at the Couto Pereira Stadium, a 40,000-seat venue in Curitiba about 300 miles north of Chapeco.
Chape had its best season in 2016, earning 52 points from 37 matches. On Sunday, the team lost at Palmeiras 1-0, a result that clinched the Brazilian league title for the host team.
“God be with our athletes, management, journalists and other guests who are with the delegation,” said an announcement posted on the club’s Twitter page.
Brazil’s soccer federation added: “We express our solidarity and we direct our prayers to the passengers and crew of the flight.”
World soccer has been hit by aviation tragedies before.
In 1958, the core of the Manchester United soccer team was among those killed in the crash of a British European Airways plane attempting to take off from Munich-Riem Airport. The team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes,” was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade and, at the time, was widely hailed as one of the powerhouses in international soccer.
In 1987, a chartered Peruvian navy plane carrying the team Alianza Lima crashed into the Pacific. Only the pilot survived. Two years later, the crash of a Surinam Airways plane killed 176 people, including all 11 members of an exhibition team, known of the Colorful 11, comprising Surinamese football players playing professionally in the Netherlands.
In 1993, many members of the national team of Zambia were aboard a plane that crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Gabon as it headed for a World Cup qualifier match against Senegal. All 25 passengers and five crew members were killed.