Chapecoense Warriors: A Tragic Plane Crash in Colombia Stuns a Continent of Soccer Fans

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Players who did not travel on the fatal flight paid tribute to their teammates at the club’s stadium in Chapecó. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

“We ask for permission to approach, we have a fuel problem!”

“Nine thousand feet! “Vectors! Vectors!”

Those were, according to this article, reported to be the last words of the pilot who, on November 29, suddenly lost control of a plane carrying 77 people, including members of the Chaepecoense soccer team. The Chapecoense team was travelling from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Medellin, Colombia when their Avro RJ85 jet crashed, killing all but 6 fortunate passengers, three of them members of the team of 22.

Up to that moment, Chapecoense was living large, playing the role of lovable upstart, making the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, a major soccer tournament in South America. From a small town called Chapeco in Western Brazil, the Chapecoense Warriors were playing well against the rich teams since the end of the Rio Olympics in August, strong teams like Argentina’s Independiente and San Lorenzo. But tragedy struck unexpectedly and football fans across South America mourned, but none more so painfully than the hometown fans. Here’s how The Guardian described it:

Among townspeople, there is a sense that the loss of most of their plucky team of giantkillers wasn’t just a local tragedy, but something bigger: the loss of a tight, well-organised, and competent unit that stood out for its unexpected success in a country that has lost its way.

A Chapecoense fan at the vigil in Chapecó.png

This is a deeply divided nation which in the past year has been roiled by a debilitating recession, a gargantuan corruption scandal and the divisive impeachment of an unpopular leftwing president. At times it has seemed that Brazil is no longer sure how to manage itself; Chapecoense was a small team that knew exactly what it was doing.

In the history of aviation disasters involving sports teams, soccer squads have had more than their fair share of tragedies. As listed in this article, there was the crash in Turin Italy in 1949 that claimed the lives of 22 members of the Tornio soccer club. Nine years later, 8 members of Manchester United were among 23 deaths in a crash outside Munich airport in Germany. And in 1987, a plane carrying members of Alianza Lima crashed in the Pacific Ocean, killing 16 players and the team coach.

Olympic teams have not been spared. The United States ice figure skating team lost its entire 18-member team when it’s plane to Prague, Czechoslovakia crashed in Belgium. And then there was the US men’s boxing team, a group of 22 boxers aspiring to a shot at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, before the American government mandated a boycott of those Games. I wrote about that tragedy here.

The video below was taken just after their draw with San Lorenzo, which sent them to the Copa Sudaamericana finals, which was cancelled. Their elation only compounds the horrific sense of loss.