Through thick and thin, the small Brazilian town of Chapeco has stood by its soccer team — even as the tragic fairy tale came to an end Friday, as team and staff members killed in the crash of LaMia Flight 2933 returned home.
The would-be rivals to Medellin’s Atletico Nacional were paid funerary honors usually reserved for dignitaries and presidents. As the caravan carrying 64 coffins made its way down the streets of the Colombian city, crowds cheered “Let’s Go Chape” and waved goodbye with white flags.
They had waved them off a week ago for what was going to be the biggest game in the history of Chapecoense football club, hoping for a victory in the Copa Sudamerica final. It was meant to be one of the scrappy team’s finest moments, after rising through the ranks from fourth division to A-listers in Brazil’s competitive regional soccer leagues.
Moments before the flight was to land at Jose Maria Cordova International Airport, the plane crashed into a mountain, killing 71 people on board — including 19 of the club’s players and 19 staff members. Six people survived, including three Chapecoense players who are still in critical condition.
At 8 a.m. Friday, while the soccer heroes’ bodies were still being flown back from Colombia, fans were waiting at the stadium, chanting, cheering and clapping in the pouring rain.
But the seemingly festive atmosphere was deceptive. Many of the supporters were openly weeping, some were praying.
“I have been here for all the games, so now I want to say goodbye,” one fan, Enilson Dos Santos, said. “I am shocked and I’m just so sad.”
“I’m feeling lots of emotion,” supporter Sandra Gonzalez said as she wiped away tears. “They were our idols, I can’t understand what’s happened. I only feel pain.”
Images of the military transport planes touching down at the local airport were beamed onto the large screens within the stadium, the removal of each casket drawing a dignified round of applause.
The arrival of the bodies at the stadium a short time later was greeted by a deafening roar, but then the reality hit home. No longer could anyone be in denial as the coffins were unloaded.
It was a visceral sight, the sheer volume of caskets — dozens and dozens — illustrating the magnitude of the disaster.
For a small club of modest means, it had been a monumental effort bringing their heroes home, and the last few yards seemed to be hardest.
The rain was now torrential, the field waterlogged. The eight soldiers carrying each casket waded through a guard of honor to deliver the deceased to their families.
The wife of Danilo, the goalkeeper whose last-gasp save took Chapecoense to the final, cried as she placed his photograph in the goalmouth. The godfather to her son pounded the crossbar with Danilo’s gloves.
For Amanda Machado, the grief must have been almost crippling. She had been due to marry her fiancée, defender Dener Braz, the previous day. He wanted to take his wedding ring to Colombia with him but Amanda wanted to keep it safe, it now hangs around her neck.
Three players survived the crash but were not yet in stable enough condition to travel home.
Eleven players who survived were in attendance, the defender Demerson among them. Wearing the shirt of his best friend Bruno Rangel, Demerson said he’s heartbroken he’s gone.
The emotion was raw inside the stadium, and even for observers with no direct connection to the tragedy, it was hard not to be moved. For many reporters, though, the emotion was real; many of their of their close colleagues were traveling to report the match and died on the plane.
Many were friends. Grief counselors were on hand to offer comfort where needed.
In the coming days, dozens of funerals will be held across Brazil. And soon, Chapecoense will commence the difficult task of rebuilding a shattered club.
For much of the day in Chapeco, the rain poured down from the sky. Most of the rudimentary stadium is uncovered and so almost everybody both inside and outside the arena was soaked.
But nobody was complaining. Everybody knows that Chapecoense always played best in the rain.