'Our club represented Brazil': Chapecoense tragedy a crushing blow to nation in crisis

For many in the southern city of Chapecó the football team, whose players and staff were nearly all killed in a plane crash in Colombia on Monday, were a balm against the political and economic upheaval battering their country

Laudiceia Xavier, 20, cried when her father woke her up on Tuesday with the news that the charter plane carrying their local football team had crashed on a mountainside in Colombia.

Her eyes were still red on Wednesday. “I couldn’t believe it. It was a very bad feeling. It still hasn’t sunk in,” she said. “Nobody can believe it,” said her cousin, Claudiomir de Camargo, 17, a student.

Like many here, they both wore the green shirts of the beloved local club, Chapecoense, who rose from non-league obscurity to contest the second-biggest trophy in South America – and were then all but wiped out on their way to their first-ever international final in Medellín.

Chapecoense crash map

Among townspeople, there is a sense that the loss of most of their plucky team of giantkillers wasn’t just a local tragedy, but something bigger: the loss of a tight, well-organised, and competent unit that stood out for its unexpected success in a country that has lost its way.

This is a deeply divided nation which in the past year has been roiled by a debilitating recession, a gargantuan corruption scandal and the divisive impeachment of an unpopular leftwing president.

At times it has seemed that Brazil is no longer sure how to manage itself; Chapecoense was a small team that knew exactly what it was doing.

“In contrast to what we are seeing in the rest of the country, this is the Brazil that worked out,” said Paulo Machado, the team’s psychiatrist, in a break from attending relatives of the victims at the team’s stadium.

Monday night’s crash on a Colombian mountainside killed 71 people – including all but three of the 22-man squad and 20 sports journalists – and devastated this fast-growing town of 210,000.

When locals woke up to the news, many headed straight to the team’s small stadium.

Kaue Regis, 20, an industrial technician, was one of them. He and a few dozen, mostly male, working-class supporters plan to camp there until the team’s bodies arrive. “For us it is shocking,” he said. “We were in happiness. Now sadness.”

These young men have spent their lives following this team on its unexpected rollercoaster of success. Founded in 1973 with the support of local businessmen, Chapecoense built its stadium and entered Brazil’s fourth division in 2009. By 2014 it had reached the premier league, Série A, and was confounding expectations by surviving there.

A regional team punching so far above its weight drew inevitable comparisons with the Premier League champions. “Chapecoense is the Brazilian Leicester,” respected football columnist and commentator Juca Kfouri wrote on his blog on the day after the crash.

And like Leicester, Chapecó rallied around its club. “The team played for us,” said Carlos Bagiston, 19, who works in a liquor store. “It made the city grow … Before we were considered a colony.”

Fans gather outside Chapecoense’s stadium on Tuesday night to mourn the club’s players.
Fans gather outside Chapecoense’s stadium on Tuesday night to mourn the club’s players. Photograph: Dom Phillips/The Guardian

Chapecoense’s success also galvanized soccer fans across Brazil, who had been devastated when their national team was destroyed 7-1 by Germany in the 2014 World Cup final – and only partly appeased by the men’s team’s gold medal at the Rio Olympics.

The tragedy came at the end of what has been a horrendous year for Brazil, as bad news and political upheaval followed tragedy. An epidemic of the Zika virus has been blamed for an outbreak of the birth defect microcephaly, but nobody understands why it is concentrated in Brazil’s poorer north-east. Economists are struggling to understand why South America’s biggest economy refuses to grow out of its worst recession in a century.

Public life has been darkened by a sprawling bribery and kickbacks scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras that has led to the jailing of dozens of politicians, executives and intermediaries. The scandal helped drive the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in August – though she was never accused of graft – and allegations now threaten her successor and former vice-president, Michel Temer.

He is equally disliked by Brazilians weary of graft, incompetence and mismanagement, and suspicious of austerity measures he is trying to introduce.

As Chapecó mourned its loss on 29 November, lower house legislators in Brasília were doctoring a popular anti-corruption measure to threaten judges and prosecutors, while riot police used teargas and percussion grenades on demonstrators protesting Temer’s austerity measures.

“Many bad things happened in Brazil,” said Regis, who hoped the team could rescue much-needed self-esteem. “Our club represented our nation, it didn’t just represent our city.”

Brazil is a continent-sized nation of 206 million people that can at times seem like five different countries. Its southern cone, where Chapecó is, was settled by Italian, German and Polish immigrants and many here resent the tax money that goes to fund welfare programs in the poorer north-east, where the African heritage of centuries of brutal slavery is more evident.

“People suffer a lot there,” acknowledged Neocir Picolo, 57, who runs a market stall where Chapecoense shirts were selling out. “[But] people work here and resources go to there.”

Danimar Silva and his son, Davi Luis. ‘It was a serious, competent job by the bosses and the players,’ Silva said.
Danimar Silva and his son, Davi Luis. ‘It was a serious, competent job by the bosses and the players,’ Silva said. Photograph: Dom Phillips/The Guardian

Fans contrasted Chapecoense’s effective management of limited resources under coach Caio Júnior and club president Sandro Pallaoro – both killed in the crash – with the inept leadership and extravagant waste of their political leaders. Pallaoro, who was on his third term as president, ran a food company and had been voted Chapecó’s businessman of the year.

“It was a serious, competent job by the bosses and the players,” said Danimar Silva, 29, who runs a heavy machinery company and had come to the stadium to mourn with his son Davi Luis, two. Silva wiped tears from red eyes as he spoke.

One shellshocked surviving player said the team’s organization enabled them to go further than anyone expected.

“We were very united, the team was good, so much so that we managed great results,” said Cláudio Winck, a right-back who was not on the flight because he was not selected. “To reach the final was more than we hoped for.”

In 2013, when massed street protests against corruption and World Cup spending shook Brazilian streets, some demonstrators took aim at highly paid Brazilian footballer and Barcelona star Neymar, comparing his fat salary with the skimpy wages of public sector teachers.

In Chapecó the players did not live in ivory towers, said Eliana Detoni, 39, a kitchen assistant who had come to light candles at an improvised shrine at the stadium with her twin daughters Vanessa and Andressa, 12.

“They were very simple, you met them at the bakery, in restaurants,” she said. “The city embraced the team. You didn’t see any other strip on the street.”

• The map graphic in this article was corrected on 1 December 2016.


Dom Phillips in Chapecó, Brazil

The GuardianTramp

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