Small-town Brazil team returns to pitch after crash

The crash on the eve of the Copa Sudamericana final left Chapecoense in ruins

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Brazilian striker Tulio de Melo had a long career in soccer clubs across Europe but when his former team Chapecoense called last month in the wake of a devastating air disaster, he knew he had no choice but to go back.

The journeyman forward, who played for the small Brazilian club in 2015, knew most of the players and staff who were killed on Nov. 28 when their plane plunged into a mountainside in Colombia on the way to the biggest game in the team’s history.

The crash on the eve of the Copa Sudamericana final left Chapecoense in ruins but the 31-year-old de Melo, who was playing at the time for a rival Brazilian side, did not think twice when the club called him.

“They invited me and in my heart I couldn’t make any other decision,” he said. “After an accident like that, if you don’t see life in a different way, you don’t understand anything about life.”

De Melo’s return was part of a rebuilding that brought offers of help from some of soccer’s biggest clubs.

Spanish champions Barcelona will host Chapecoense in a friendly to raise funds for the club in August and a date is being sought for another charity game with Manchester United.

Several teams have suffered airline disasters - Torino in 1947, Manchester United in 1958, Alianza Lima in 1987. But the Chapecoense crash was shocking in its devastation - only six people onboard the flight survived. Seventy-one were killed.

The dead included club directors and backroom staff. Only three players were lifted alive from the wreckage and one of them had his leg amputated.

The side that only reached the first division three years ago and retained its top-tier status thanks to steady performances anchored by prudent financial management.

“We lost almost everyone,” said club vice-president Ivan Tozzo. “The week after the bodies were buried we started thinking about football and we worked very hard. We’ve put together a new backroom staff and had elections for new directors.”

Worldwide attention

Chapecoense was founded in 1973 in the small farming city of Chapeco, population 200,000. Its calm streets have an orderly feel at odds with popular images of Brazil’s teeming favelas, chaotic traffic and violent crime.

With that same calm organization, Chapecoense rose through the ranks thanks to a policy of living within its means. The club’s journey to the final of the Copa Sudamericana was a footballing fairytale -- with a horrific ending.

After the shock of the tragedy subsided, Chapecoense realised they had become everyone’s favorite second team.

That has translated into a financial windfall. Fans from across the world have bought shirts and signed up as members, so far 20,000 more than this time last year, according to Chapecoense’s Vice President of Finance Roberto Merlo.

Commercial partners have come knocking and the club expects its budget to reach 100 million reais (£25.2 million) in 2017, up more than half from last year’s 65 million (£16.4 million).

Much of the new cash will go on building foundations for the future such as a new training center, Merlo said. Spending on players must also rise as the club seeks the talent needed to take it through its toughest season ever.

New faces

Less than two weeks after the crash, the club appointed a new manager, Vagner Mancini - an experienced coach, well-known for getting the best out of mid-level clubs.

Mancini stuck to Chapecoense’s policy of combining experienced journeymen and young prospects. The club paid no big transfer fees, signing only players out of contract, and even dismissed reports of interest from retired former Barcelona striker Ronaldinho.

“It was never our idea to bring a player that has already hit the heights and earned a lot of money,” Tozzo said. “We wanted youngsters keen to get on.”

Mancini chose 25 new players, half of them on loan, to add to the nine promoted from the youth squad and the three who remain from last season. Many of the scouts, medics and other backroom staff also had to be replaced.

Part of the challenge was finding people who could handle the psychological pressure stemming from the tragedy.

“The emotional aspect shouted the loudest,” Mancini said. “We have people here who will be tested as human beings and who are giving significant answers.”

Those answers will become even more apparent over what promises to be an arduous season. Chapecoense will take part in seven competitions, starting on Thursday at home to Joinville.

Having being awarded the Copa Sudamericana title after the crash, they will make their debut in the Copa Libertadores, which involves long flights to Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina.

They will also return to Colombia to face Atletico Nacional in a two-legged Recopa Sudamericana final that will test the hearts of players and fans alike.

“The goal for us is to do our best and honor this shirt in every game,” de Melo said. “It is not a season we are going to say we won titles and everything. It’s about survival.”