Tragic chapter has football world mourning

The phone rang about 4 o’clock in the morning, with the news that plane carrying the Chapecoense football team had gone down. A couple of hours earlier I had been talking about them on the radio, about their extraordinary rise and the big game they had ahead of them.


Players of Brazil's Chapecoense football club participate in a tribute to their fellow players killed in a plane crash Source: AFP

The modest Brazilian club had become the first team from their country to qualify for a continental final in three years.

They were on their way to fulfil a dream against Atletico Nacional of Medellin in the first leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s Europa League equivalent.

Destiny denied them the opportunity to live that dream.  And it took from them so much more.

The first reports were that the plane had gone down on its approach to Medellin airport. There were survivors. The local authorities were calling for residents with 4x4 vehicles to help ferry the survivors to hospital. So there was hope. 

There was initial talk of a death toll around 25 – a huge tragedy, indeed. 

But with around 80 on board, not everything was lost. As the families of the players, officials and coaching staff of the club gathered at Chapecoense’s stadium, they could still cling to a faith that their husband, or father had pulled through.

I saw with horror that one of the journalists on the plane was Paulo Julio Clement, on his way to Medellin to comment on the game for the Fox network. 

Some six years ago, when I started doing regular shows on Brazilian TV, more often than not I was together with Paulo, or PJ as everyone called him. We had stopped appearing together after he joined Fox, but he remained a friend. 

I sent him a text message, reminding him that everyone here in Rio was with him. The awful truth was that he was no longer with us.  I trust he has gone to a better place.

It was a dreadfully cruel morning, surely unbearable for the families in Chapeco.  There were reports of some of the players arriving in hospital. Surely there would be more. 

Then hope was extinguished, only for another survivor to be found. The families could still believe – if Neto could be found alive, then perhaps my husband, or father, is out there, breathing and waiting to be rescued.

I had to go across town and do the TV show – the one I used to do with PJ. The newsroom was a wake – this is not only the biggest tragedy in the history of Brazilian sport, it is also the biggest for Brazilian journalism. 

And many of those who died were from Rio and friends and former colleagues of those around me.

As we were on air the news kept getting worse. There was no more hope of any more survivors, we were informed, and then one of those rescued – Danilo, the keeper whose incredible last gasp save had qualified Chapecoense for the final, was also named among the fatal casualties.

When you read about the Munich air disaster of 1958, which devastated the great Manchester United side, it all seems so final and precise. 

Along with journalists and crew, eight players died, including Duncan Edwards, perhaps the best ever English player. Manager Matt Busby survived, rebuilt the side and won the European Cup a decade later.

But living through it must have been much more messy, less precise, full of rollercoaster emotions. 

Edwards, for example, did not die until 15 days afterwards. Busby spent two months in hospital, and seemed such a lost cause that he was twice read the last rites. 

Frank Swift, a great former England goalkeeper then working as a journalist, seemed to have survived the crash only to die on the way to hospital.

When I look back on the Chapecoense crash it will not be the precision of the numbers that comes to mind – the 71 deaths and six survivors (a toll which could yet worsen).

What will come back will be the emotions of those few hours, and the knowledge of how desperately awful those emotions must have been for the family members.

I will also recall, as we were doing the TV show, the news coming through of reactions to the accident, or Real Madrid and Barcelona and so many other clubs performing minutes of silence before training, of Zinedine Zidane making reference to the disaster at the start of his press conference. 

It was all completely natural, unforced, heartfelt.  The world of football can easily relate to this kind of tragedy. Players do board a lot of planes.

At the start of the show, more in hope than anything else, I had floated the idea of Atletico Nacional handing the Copa Sudamericana trophy to Chapecoense. 

In this case my hopes were exceeded. The Nacional players were, it seems, already talking along the same lines, and within a few hours it had become an official club request. 

This is important on two levels; as a symbolic tribute to those who lost their lives, and also as a way to help Chapecoense get back on their feet.

Being declared winners of the Sudamericana would mean that the club automatically qualify for the continent’s main event, the Copa Libertadores, guaranteeing an importance source of revenue to help them deal with the massive challenges ahead.

And Atletico Nacional went further.  Wednesday night, when the game should have taken place in Medellin, was always going to be emotional. 

Fox Sports, who lost PJ Clement and others, left their screen blank apart from the clock ticking the match time and the legend ’90 minutes of silence.’  Chapecoense’s fans gathered for a mass in their stadium. 

And in Medellin, Nacional’s fans flocked to the Atanasio Girodot stadium to pay tribute to the Brazilians who had been unable to visit them. Thousands were left outside. 

What happened inside was a breathtakingly beautiful spectacle, a deeply touching testament to the capacity of football to unite. 

At the end of the music and the speeches, the moments when the crowd had been solemn and the others when they had chanted the name of Chapecoense, the mayor of Chapeco was almost too moved to speak. 

As Colombia’s national team, coach, the Argentine Jose Pekerman had said on social media soon after the plane crash, “and you, why do you feel this way?  Do you understand now why you love football?  We’re all hurting with news like this.”

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6 min read
Published 1 December 2016 at 5:24pm
By Tim Vickery