This coming weekend sees the end of the season for Brazil’s top tier. In a normal time the focus would be on this year’s champions, Palmeiras, who have won their first league title for 22 years. In a normal time, the press and fans would be analysing each team’s success or failure and looking ahead to next time. But this is not a normal time, and for Chapecoense, the team from the little city of Chapeco in the southern state of Santa Catarina, it is hard to see beyond an awful present. 77 people died when the team’s plane crashed on Monday in Columbia, including 19 players and all the coaching staff. It is a tragic end to a story of an underdog that, against the odds, managed to establish a place for itself amongst Brazil’s giants and was on the verge of continental glory.
The town of Chapeco lies some hours south of the bustling metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. It is situated in Santa Catarina, the land of the “gauchos,” as inhabitants of Brazil’s southern states are called. Here, the European influence is strong. Hundreds of thousands of Germans flocked here during the 19th and 20th centuries, along with large numbers of Italians and Polish. The town of Blumenau, on the other side of the state to Chapeco, famously hosts the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany.
Unlike Blumenau, or the city of Florianopolis, Chapeco is not a staple of Santa Catarina’s tourist trail. This is a working city, an example of why Santa Catarina is one of Brazil’s most prosperous regions. The town is known as a centre of food processing, producing meat for the rest of the country.
But aside from it’s industry, it was football that made Chapeco stand out. In a country like Brazil, where the game enjoys almost religious status, the unlikely rise of Chapecoense was a source of great pride for the town and a charming underdog story for football fans nationwide.
The Campeonato Brasileiro may not generate the revenue of the most prestigious European competitions, but it is still a juggernaut in it’s own right. The richest league in the Americas, last season it generated 3.6 billion reals (more than £800 million ). A massive share of this, as in Europe, was generated by a few of the biggest clubs. Of the five largest, only one, Cruzeiro, is from outside Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. Over the last ten years, six different clubs have won the title, Cruzeiro again being the only club to break up the Rio/Sao Paulo rivalry.
Brazil may be slightly more competitive than the most famous European leagues, but the same rule holds true there as for the rest of the football world; size wins, money wins.
Those facts, well covered by the world’s press in the wake of the tragedy, is what makes Chapecoense’s rise so remarkable. Founded in 1973, still in the fourth division by 2007, based in a city dwarfed by those to the north, the team faced an uphill battle. Add to that the fierce competition for quality players, the best of whom are inevitably hoovered up by European clubs and have to be replaced. Up against the likes of Corinthians and Flamengo, Chapecoense was at an obvious disadvantage in resources and prestige.
Reaching the top tier alone was a major achievement, but Chapecoense also managed to stick around. Last season they finished 14th, giving them a place in the Copa Sudamericana, the South American equivalent of the Europa League. Again, the team did not merely settle on this latest success, but was able to fight through four rounds against foreign opposition to reach the final of the competition.
Sometimes, in the light of tragedy, achievements can be embelished, but in the case of Chapecoense there’s no need for exaggeration. In a nation of over 200 million, the fact that a city smaller than Leicester can produce a team that can hold it’s own on the national and continental stage is a truly stunning accomplishment.
It is testament to the bitter cruelty of fate that such a story could end in such inconceivable circumstances. Suddenly the positive becomes tragic, Chapecoense’s success will be remembered only as the context to a disaster. Unfortunately, in this, they resemble the other celebrated but doomed teams that still echo ominously in the lore of football history. Torino 1949. Manchester United 1958.
The pain of the disaster will be particularly keen in Brazil. Even here, in a sport that has so often brought joy in dark times, a welcome relief from harsh realities, there is more misery.
2016 has not been a year devoid of positives for the country. Despite the near hysterical doom-mongering of the press in Europe and the US, the Rio Olympics were a success. However, as before the games, there are many voices asking what stadiums and medals will actually do for long standing social problems in desperate need of solutions.
In Rio, security concerns have deepened in the wake of the olympics after a series of worrying incidents. Brazilian politics remains a mixture of farce and tragedy, with one president already removed under dubious circumstances and another, the seemingly universally disliked Michel Temer, facing a series of accusations that could make his own position untenable.
But if it is possible to find positives at such a time, some comfort can surely be found in the nation’s reaction to the terrible news. Brazilian clubs have been quick to express their solidarity with Chapecoense. There have been offers to loan players, while the champions Palmeiras have requested to finish their season wearing Chapecoense’s shirts. Only gestures, yes, and obviously events like this are greater than football, but perhaps they can provide some comfort. It demonstrates a generosity and a sense of responsibility, that even in the most trying times, shines through.
Currently, Chapeco and Brazil are in mourning, to remember the young men, as well as the coaching staff and journalists, who lost their lives. But one day it will be time to rebuild. If there is any glimmer of hope, it is that history shows us teams can recover and that those who were taken too early will always enjoy a special place in football’s pantheon.