Chapec - Chapecoense,
the Brazilian football club cruelly decimated by a plane crash, strode
back on the field Saturday in a new line-up for their first match since
Intense public and media attention was greeting the friendly match
against Palmeiras, played in the 20,000-place Arena Conda stadium in
Chapeco decked out in the home side's green color.
Although supporters had snapped up all the club jerseys online, and
241 journalists from around the world were accredited for the game, the
stadium was not full. Tickets priced expensively at $25 each at a time
of dire unemployment in Brazil likely kept some away.
Before the 16:30 kick-off, the three survivors of the
crash that wiped out their teammates received the Copa Sudamerica trophy
posthumously awarded to the club to sustained applause.
Widows of the players killed then filed onto the grass to receive
medals on behalf of their husbands in an emotionally powerful ceremony.
"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 event.
Their plane went down on November 28 in mountains near Colombia's
city of Medellin as the team were flying in to play Atletico Nacional.
Of the 77 people on board, 71 lost their lives, including 19 players and
24 other club members.
In the 71st minute of the game, the stadium's crowd was going to be
asked to stand and clap in homage of the victims -- the beginning of a
tradition for all home games played by Chapecoense.
The plane accident cut short
the fairytale run of the unheralded team who had risen in five years
from the fourth division and were playing in their first major final.
To rebuild the side, sporting director Rui Costa has recruited 22 players, most of them on loan.
He told AFP on Friday 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.
Goalkeeper Jackson Follman had his foot amputated, ending his career.
The others who survived the crash were two of the plane's Bolivian
crew and a radio reporter, Rafael Henzel, who said Saturday's game "is
the first match of my new life."
The 43-year-old journalist will be commentating the game. "We need moments like this - it's a rebirth," he said.
The new-look Chapecoense has no big names, but include experienced
players such as former Lille striker Tulio de Melo and ex-Benfica
goalkeeper Artur Moraes.
Half the match proceeds will go to the families of those killed, while the rest will be used to rebuild the club.
The survivors met with
management on Friday to discuss compensation from the Bolivian airline,
Lamia, which owned the plane that crashed. The airline's director was
arrested in December.
The tragedy was a blow to Chapeco, a town of just 200 000 inhabitants
where nearly everyone was one or two degrees connected with the team.
"We are a small community. We are not used to such a high profile," the mayor, Luciano Buligon, told AFP.
"But this global attention has comforted us. This big wave of solidarity is helping us to raise our head and to look ahead."
The popularity of Chapecoense has gone well beyond Brazil's borders.
Miguel Alvarez said he and friends had traveled from Argentina "for
the inaugural match of this club that had a tragedy that affected
He added: "Football matters, yes, but mostly there has be solidarity with the human side of it all."