Personally, I haven’t watched too much of this year’s Copa Sudamericana. Recovering from a summer long stupor of Futbol and waking from it feeling remorse from another well-executed Colombian elimination to Chile (Chile 2, Colombia 0 — cue *tears*) – who repeated Copa America glory (Chile!? Otra Vez!? No Puede Ser!!!) – left me feeling discouraged and craven at the prospect of witnessing another harrowing loss. In fact, my recent aberrant behavior towards Futbol – the sport I love without fail – nearly led me to miss Atletico Nacional’s historic Copa Libertadores victory in September; imagine missing out on those Colombian pride/ego points?
Inasmuch as it was simply papering over the cracks in my pride, the Libertadores victory made me pay certain attention (more easygoing than an hincha) to South America’s continental championship. For one, my family’s’ team is never involved, so the glory was/is merely borrowed (Millonarios is one of Nacional’s greatest rivals and a team with a predilection for epic failure — much like the National Team, but that’s another story) . Second, the talent on display is always capricious – sometimes it flourishes after the tournament, but it mostly fades in an ephemeral haze. However, cinderella stories are always on the cards. One of these cinderella stories was Chapecoense.
Correction: an almost cinderella story.
So close yet so far, Chapocoense represented the ideals of South American Cup Futbol: a small team playing alongside giants and sweeping them off the field, a story reminiscent of David slaying Goliath. Instead of weapons – slings and bows and arrows and other archaic devices – there are goals and draws, and then there are hard-fought draws, earned with mettlesome defense and bold attacking play.
In the first knockout round, they were drawn against an upstart Independiente side whose recent rise mirrored their own. Chapecoense held the Argentine’s – and their experienced coach Diego Milito- to the sword, starving them of goal scoring chances. After two scoreless legs (home and away fixtures) they dragged them to penalties. The Brazilian’s, despite inexperience, held their nerve, defeating the Argentines 5-4 in front of their local supporters who had never before witnessed their team win a Continental match. Nobody will ever forget the image of Goalkeeper Danilo looking up to the heavens with his arms wide open (much like that Creed singer guy) in prayer, flanked on all sides by adoring fans, eyes closed in a trance, asking for fate to intervene. His prayers were resoundingly answered, and the cinderella story was born.
They next vanquished Colombian coastal giants Junior de Barranquilla. No strangers to Continental Competition (having appeared a combined 14 times in both Libertadores and Sudamericana tournaments), the odds were heavily in favor of Junior. Leiner Escalantes’ shot hoodwinked Danilo, leading to a first half goal that all but ended the Brazilian’s hopes of advancement; they had one home leg to play and needed to score more than one goal against a Junior defense that had fettered their attack. However, in front of their passionate supporters (or Hinchas), and on a pitch inundated by heavy rainfall, the Brazilians defeated Junior 3-0. The goals were scrappy, somewhat lucky, and all in all, very ugly, but the result stood nonetheless. The cinderella story continued.
When Martin Cauteruccio – San Lorenzo’s experienced Uruguayan Striker who was part of their Libertadores winning team back in 2013 – scored an early (and very lucky) goal in the first half of the first leg of the semi-final match with Chapecoense, the zealous home supporters (hinchas) collectively roared in jubilance. The intoxicating atmosphere made it seem very unlikely that the Brazilians would ever be able to get the away goal they so desperately needed. Then, with strength, a bit of luck, and some midfield chicanery, the ball fell to the feet of Chapecoenses’ star attacking midfielder Ananias. With his back to goal, he turned quickly and rifled a shot that squeezed in between two defenders and past the goalkeeper, sliding into the net, only inches away from the near post. Ananias, a player who never achieved the expectations placed upon him as a youth (he was compared to the great Andres Iniesta, earning the nickname “Ananiesta”) and, as a result, never finding a team where he could settle, had given the Brazilians a precious away goal. And when San Lorenzo left Buenos Aires, the away goal burden was placed on them. Despite the Argentines excellent play in the first leg, they were left to rue missed chances. The Brazilians had done it again. They starved the experienced Argentines of clear chances, and the game ended in a draw. Chapecoense had done it, they were finalists.
So close but so far is the title of the piece. In a tragic turn, the plane carrying the team, coaching staff, and members of the press, crashed on its way to Medellin, where the first leg of the Sudamericana final was to take place. Of the 81 passengers aboard the plane, 76 lost their lives. The best efforts of rescue workers were in vain. They initially found three survivors in the wreckage. However, the weather on the mountainside stymied their efforts, making it impossible to continue. One of the survivors was Danilo, who, only a short time ago, prayed to the heavens for the advancement of his team. He was rushed to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. It has been reported by various outlets that he was able to speak to his wife one last time. (Danilo)
Nacional has decided to give the championship to their fallen rival. Vanquished not by them – the current continental champions – but by the cruelty of this tragedy. Some can point to the 1972 Andes Flight Disaster, where a rugby team and other passengers survived the initial crash, braved the brutal conditions, and were rescued; this is now called the Miracle Of The Andes. Sadly, there seems to be no Miracle in sight. However, the memory of this near cinderella story can be forever remembered in the minds of passionate Futbol fans — Hinchas.
RIP Chapecoense. Your story will always be remembered.