OSAKA, Japan, Dec 10 – Colombia’s Atletico Nacional arrived in Japan on Saturday to contest the Club World Cup, carrying the hopes of a continent still mourning after last month’s Chapecoense air disaster.
Nacional’s incidental part in the tragedy — the Brazilian team were en route to play them when their plane crashed, killing 71 people, including all but three Chape players — has thrust them into the public eye.
Nacional, who won their second Libertadores Cup in July, promised to honour the memory of their stricken rivals after touching down in Osaka for the Club World Cup’s first semi-final in midweek.
“The best tribute we can give them is to play a great tournament and reach the final,” Nacional coach Reinaldo Rueda told reporters at Kansai International Airport after their long-haul flight.
“Hopefully we will reach our objective,” he added as he looks ahead to a possible final against Spanish giants Real Madrid on December 18.
In a touching move, Nacional, who were due to meet Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericana final before the disaster, successfully lobbied for the Brazilians to be awarded the title posthumously.
“We will remember this tragedy for the rest of our lives,” said Nacional captain Alexis Henriquez.
“As a footballer you just don’t expect something like this to happen. When we step onto the pitch in Japan we know we will be representing not just Colombian football but all of South America as well.”
Nacional will face either South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns or Japanese champions Kashima Antlers on Wednesday.
“We know for us the most important match is the first one,” said Henriquez.
“If we don’t win that we won’t be able to play against Real Madrid in the final, and that’s everything we want.”
The Medellin club, who have already played more than 80 games this season, are looking to avenge a 1-0 defeat by AC Milan in the tournament’s forerunner, the Intercontinental Cup, in 1989.
The odds are stacked against them, however, as European sides have won the Club World Cup eight of the last nine years, the financial gulf making it ever harder to reverse that trend.
“If we win this tournament we will make history for Colombia and South American football,” added Henriquez, striking a defiant tone and insisting his side did not fear a Real side inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Once you get on the pitch it’s eleven against eleven. We are going to give it everything to win this world title.”