Hundreds of Chapecoense fans have gathered at the football club’s stadium in Chapecó, Brazil, to mourn the players and staff killed in a plane crash in Colombia.
The Brazilian team were travelling to Medellín, Colombia, to play Atlético Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana on Wednesday evening, accompanied by journalists covering the match for Brazilian television, when their charter flight went down with the loss of at least 71 of the 81 people on board.
Chapecoense’s vice-president, Ivan Tozzo, who was not with the team, said fans and staff had congregated at the club’s Arena Condá to await the latest news.
Members of the crowd wore the team’s colours and brought flags and flowers to leave in tribute to the victims. At one point the fans began to recite the Lord’s Prayer together.
“I’m very sad to receive the news that came through this morning. It was completely unexpected. We’re gathered at the stadium, welcoming people who are affected, people who love Chapecoense,” Tozzo told SporTV.
Plane carrying Brazil’s Chapecoense football team crashes in Colombia – video report
“The pain is hard to take. Chapecoense was the biggest source of happiness in the city. Many in the town are crying.”
Chapecoense were preparing for the biggest match of their history after a remarkable ascent in Brazilian football. Since 2008, when they failed to qualify for the fourth division of the national championship, they have improved their league finish every season, earning promotion to Série A three seasons ago and frequently beating sides with significantly bigger budgets.
Given the club’s size and relatively meagre resources, even reaching the Copa Sudamericana was a remarkable achievement. But their route to the final, which included gritty triumphs over Argentinian sides Independiente and San Lorenzo, made Chapecoense a national sensation – a fairytale story that coach Caio Júnior compared to Leicester City’s 2015-16 Premier League success in England last season.
“I’ve been at Chapecoense a long time and I know what we’ve gone through to get here,” Tozzo said. “Now we’ve arrived here – I won’t say at our peak but known around the country – a tragedy like this happens.”
Plínio David de Nes Filho, president of the club’s guiding committee, gave an emotional interview to Bom Dia Brasil, describing the fraternal atmosphere at club.
“Lifelong friends were on that flight,” he said. “It was not just a group founded on mutual respect; it was a family. We lived in harmony, with great happiness. Before boarding the flight, they said they were going to turn their dreams into reality. The dream ended this morning.”
“Pray for my team-mates,” tweeted forward Alejandro Martinuccio, one of nine members of the first-team squad who did not travel with the group.
In a display of solidarity, a number of other clubs in Brazil changed their profile images on social media to a black-and-white version of Chapecoense’s badge and tweeted the same message: “Today, every club in Brazil is one. #ForçaChape.”
“I knew Caio Júnior,” wrote ESPN Brasil commentator Mauro Cezar. “We cry for him, for the players, Chapecoense’s management, colleagues in the press and all those who have left us.”
Cuca, the manager of Palmeiras, who played Chapecoense on Sunday, said he was deeply saddened by the accident. He said: “This team was creating history beyond Brazil. [It’s an] enormous sadness.”
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The family of striker Bruno Rangel gathered in Campos in Rio de Janeiro state to await news. “He is the pride of the city,” Maurício da Horta, a friend of the forward, told GloboEsporte.
Alissen Ruschel, the sister of defender Alan Ruschel, who was taken to hospital for treatment in the wake of the accident, tweeted: “God is great and made you strong. I love you, man. You’re a fighter.”
Amanda Ruschel, the left-back’s wife, posted on Instagram: “Alan is in hospital and stable. We are praying for all those still awaiting rescue and sending strength to their families. A difficult situation. Only God can give us strength.”
She later told Fox Sports: “I turned on the TV and saw it. It feels like I’m in a bubble. At the start of the morning, the only thing I knew was that, by some miracle, he had been rescued alive and was going for exams. He was talking lucidly. He was in a state of shock – one of the only [survivors], so of course he was. It hadn’t sunk in.”
Who are Chapecoense, the football team involved in the Colombia plane crash?
The mayor of Medellín, Federico Gutierrez, described the crash as a “tragedy of huge proportions”, while the Brazilian president, Michel Temer, offered his condolences on Twitter. “I express my solidarity at this sad time when dozens of Brazilian families have been affected by tragedy,” he wrote.
Chapecó city hall announced a 30-day period of mourning for those killed, cancelling lessons in local schools and suspending all festivities planned over Christmas and new year.