This morning Brazil woke up to devastating news. A plane carrying the country’s Chapecoense soccer team crashed just south of Medellin, Colombia. According to Colombian authorities, 76 were killed, and there are 5 survivors.
As the morning wore on, Brazil was engaged in a heartbreakingly gruesome task: tracking which players’ bodies had been found, and which were dead. And as daylight broke across Colombia, the first images of the wreckage – a mangled pile of white metal – made clear that the five survivors had managed a miracle.
The President of Brazil, Michel Temer, declared 3 days of mourning, as the country grapples with what will go down in the country’s history as one of the most awful sports tragedies of all time, following in the sad steps of the death of racecar drive Airton Senna, which Brazilians still mourn.
For American readers, though, what happened today is positioned to be eerily similar in scale and cultural impact to the plane crash of the Marshall University football team in 1970. That accident is considered the deadliest tragedy affecting a sports team in American history.
In that accident, the team plane of a small West Virginia university crashed upon approach to the runway, killing 75 people – a number that is strikingly similar to the number reported dead in today’s crash. The Marshall University plane was full of players and coaches, but it was also full of team boosters; the flight was the first flight the team had taken that season, since they normally traveled by bus. As a result, many fans joined the journey that day.
For the city of Huntington, West Virginia, where Marshall is located, the accident was an unthinkable tragedy that would haunt the city, which now counts 360,000 people in the city’s metropolitan area. The Marshall football team was nearly disbanded after the accident, and – as you may have seen in the Matthew McConaughey movie We Are Marshall – the team’s ultimate return to play would prove to be both as unlikely as it was emotional.
We can expect that the Brazilian city of Chapecó, like Huntington, will be similarly haunted by this tragedy.
The team Chapecoense – a relatively young team, having formed only in 1973 – were on their way to compete in their very first international competition in the Copa South America club league final. The upcoming game would be a high point in the team’s arc, an unlikely conquest. Last night, Brazilian social media was alive with chatter about the team’s upcoming big moment, an arrival of sorts for an overlooked team from a small, Brazilian city nestled in the countryside near Iguaçu Falls.
Chapecó is the kind of place that most Brazilians have heard of, but few have visited. At the airport, you see planes destined for Chapeco and wonder where exactly they are headed. It’s a city deep in the heart of Brazil’s southern state of Santa Catarina, a state better known for the stylish beaches of Florianopolis and the tasty German beers of the surrounding towns. Chapeco lives in a different universe from the nightclub beats that blast out of Florianopolis’ clubs.
In Chapecó, the business and culture revolves around food. Chapeco is the headquarters of two of the biggest food manufacturers in Brazil – Seara and Sadia. Every morning, Brazilians around the country wake up to breakfasts of grilled cheeses layered with Sadia ham, and every lunch they sit down to plates of Seara-brand grilled chicken breasts. The growth of the town’s agrobusinesses over the past decade has left the town relatively wealthy. The town’s people are descendent from the unique blend of immigrants that mark the southern end of Brazil: Germans, Polish, and Italian. And although those heritages lended the people to cheer for the big-time southern football teams, like Gremio and Atletico, the sudden rise of the Chapecoense team had won over the city’s hearts.
In 2009, the team wallowed in Series D ranking – a league ranking that kept them out of the news and out of sight for most of the Brazilian population. But thanks to solid players and solid management, the team surged from Series D in a quest for Series A that was remarkably quick and successful. Between 2012 and 2014 the team jumped graduated from Series to Series until they reached Series A, in an ascendance that both as surprising as it was historical. Suddenly, the team was playing in the big leagues, against Brazilian megaliths like Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo and São Paulo’s Corinthians. Just this weekend, the team lost 1-0 to Palmeiras, one of the country’s most successful teams.
On Twitter, one fan noted this rapid upwards rise, concluding “They didn’t stop until they got to heaven.”
As the team prepared to board the flight this morning, to their first international competition, the hearts of those living Chapeco were swollen with pride at their team’s rise, and crushed at news this morning of their team’s fall.