CHAPECO, Brazil, Jan 20 – Tragic Brazilian football team Chapecoense are ready to turn the page with new players recruited in record time to play their first match on Saturday since its squad was wiped out in a plane crash.
The friendly against Brazilian champions Palmeiras will be the final tribute to the 19 players and 24 other club members who were killed as the team travelled to the away leg of the Copa Sudamerica final in Colombia last November.
Under new sporting director Rui Costa, 22 players have been recruited, the majority on loan, forming the backbone of the rebuilt team.
“The club understood that this was the moment to confirm its greatness by building a strong team, worthy of those who have left us,” Costa told AFP.
“The strongest argument was to show (the new players) that this club refused to die.
“Saturday’s match will be very important to show that everything that was accomplished by the players who left us will continue. It’s the most beautiful tribute we can pay them.”
The 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.
Atletico Nacional subsequently asked that their grieving opponents be awarded the Copa Sudamerica title, and the trophy will be officially presented on Saturday at their Arena Conda de Chapecó Stadium.
The tragedy put the town of just 160,000 people in the global spotlight with a large banner at the exit of the tiny Serafin Enoss Bertaso airport reading ‘thank you’ in a dozen languages.
– ‘Charged with emotion’ –
The club is torn between the desire to honour its heroes and at the same time the need to turn the page, veteran goalkeeper Nivaldo told AFP.
Nivaldo missed the fateful trip to Colombia and has since hung up his gloves and joined the team’s coaching staff.
“This match against Palmeiras will be charged with emotion, but it will be the final stage in the mourning process because it’s time to think about the future of Chapecoense,” he added.
“We’ll take advantage to bond with our fans before turning towards the objectives which those who have left us would want us to achieve.”
Among the faithful supporters will be Joan Dutra who has followed the side’s meteoric rise from this small country club to the heights of South American football.
The 60-year-old has made the 130 kilometre trip from Pato Branco, in the neighbouring state of Parana, to attend the match.
“For me, it’s moving to see this, because I lost friends in this tragedy, thank God the team is back, we have to be strong to pay tribute to those who have left us and try to do as well as they did if not even better,” said Dutra, a friend of former president Sandro Pallaoro, who died in the crash.
The new-look Chapecoense has no big names, but experienced players such as former Lille striker Tulio de Melo and ex-Benfica goalkeeper Artur Moraes.
“It’s a privilege to participate in this reconstruction, but it’s also a great challenge. We have a group of players, but we have to form a real team as quickly as possible,” said Moraes of the 28-man squad.
De Melo, 31, added: “I simply could not say no. I knew almost everyone who was in the plane. It was a real shock.
“We were chosen for our qualities on the pitch, but also off it. It’s a club unlike any other, a family, where everyone is very humble but with the soul of a warrior.”
Symbolically the first stone in rebuilding will be against the team they last played on November 27 when Palmeiras beat Chapecoense 1-0 at home to lift the Brazilian title, just one day before tragedy struck.
Its first competitive fixture since the disaster will be at home against Joinville on January 26.