BARCELONA, Spain, Aug 8 – Barcelona eased into life without Neymar by honouring Chapecoense, the Brazilian side still reeling from a devastating plane crash that killed 19 players and 24 club officials last year, in a 5-0 friendly win on Monday.
On an emotional night for the visitors, Chapecoense were captained by Alan Ruschel, one of only three players to survive the crash, on his return to action.
Ruschel was joined by the two other survivors Nieto and Jakson Follmann from the squad who were on their way to face Atletico Nacional in the final of the Copa Sudamericana when the aircraft crashed into the Colombian mountains on November 28 last year, killing 71 people.
Nieto and Follmann, who had his right leg amputated after the crash, both broke down in tears as they were invited to take an honorary kick-off in front of a crowd of 65,000 at the Camp Nou.
“I am filled with happiness to be returning to play,” Ruschel told Spanish newspaper Marca.
“I am one of the happiest people in the world because I am living something almost unthinkable. I consider myself fortunate to be in Spain, facing Barcelona, playing in a stadium where I never thought I would be.”
Ruschel also got a souvenir to savour as he swapped shirts with five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi after full-time.
Funds raised from the match will “help Chapecoense rebuild institutionally and recover the competitive level it had before the tragedy”, Barca said in a statement.
Ruschel was given the unenviable task of facing up to Messi on his return and despite the sentimentality of the occasion, Barca didn’t let up once the game got underway.
On a sporting level the Catalan giants have had a turbulent week with star Brazilian forward Neymar joining Paris Saint-Germain for a world record 222 million euro ($264 million) transfer fee.
Barca are expected to splash some of that cash in the coming weeks with a host of players rumoured to be possible Neymar replacements, including Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele of Borussia Dortmund.
However, Gerard Deulofeu made his case to at least keep his place for Sunday’s Spanish Super Cup first leg against Real Madrid with a goal and two assists before half-time.
The former Everton winger opened the scoring with a tap-in after neat work from Ivan Rakitic and his cut-back was then curled into the top corner by Sergio Busquets to make it 2-0 inside 11 minutes.
“It has been an incredible experience. They deserve to be here and have enjoyed this marvellous day,” said Deulofeu.
“They are heroes. When I think about what happened to them I start to cry.”
Messi got his goal when he slotted home Deulofeu’s low cross before Ruschel was given a standing ovation as he was substituted after 35 minutes.
Barca understandably took their foot off the gas after half-time, but Luis Suarez finally managed to get his name on the scoresheet from Messi’s pass 10 minutes after the break before Denis Suarez rounded off the scoring.
Chapecoense did have one moment to savour when goalkeeper Artur Moraes saved Paco Alcacer’s penalty late on.