SPORT

Before Air Tragedy, Chapecoense Was Brazil's 'Cinderella Story'

The whole of Brazil was behind the little club that could.

30/11/2016 10:06 AM AEDT | Updated 30/11/2016 3:29 PM AEDT

The crash of LaMia Airlines Flight 2933 into a mountain near Medellín, Colombia, is first and foremost a human tragedy for those on board and their families. But it has provided heartbreak for all Brazilians too, and also for lovers of sport.

Chapecoense football club has in recent times produced one of the great giant-killing stories of sport. The unheralded Brazilian club from the unfashionable southern city of Chapecó (population approx. 200,000) had already in a sense become the whole of Brazil's team.

Here is the lasting image of the club, after the match which effectively put the team on the plane to Colombia. Brazilians, who are ranked only behind Americans in terms of social media usage, have shared this video like crazy on multiple platforms.

The club's Portuguese message translates as "may this be the last image of our warriors".

Perhaps the most poignant story from the plane crash is that of goalie Marcos Danilo, who survived the crash and called his wife from hospital before he died from his injuries.

And here's the amazing save he made with his foot, which ensured Chapecoense got through their nail-biting semi-final.

But to understand the broader context of why this was such a big moment for Chapecoense and all Brazilians, you need to understand a little about the structure of Brazilian football. Like Europe, there is a promotion and relegation system. For decades, Chapecoense languished in the lower tiers. It was a club most people had never heard of.

But in 2014, Chapecoense climbed into Brazil's top footballing tier, the Série A. To many people's surprise, it has been competitive. This year, with just a week remaining in the season, Chapecoense sits a perfectly respectable 9th of 20 teams on the ladder.

But it's in another competition that the club captured the hearts of fans who love an underdog story. Again mirroring European football, Brazilian clubs also compete in a continental competition against clubs from other countries, in a knockout format.

The video above was taken after the match that secured Chapecoense's progression to the final of the Copa Sudamericana. Even Brazilian fans who support other clubs had joined the Chapecoense bandwagon as the club journeyed to Medellín for the first match of a two-leg home-and-away final against Colombia's Atlético Nacional.

Chapecoense is widely regarded as a well managed, well run club. It is the little club that could. Brazilians recognise and respect that. The club's widespread support was well captured by an Argentine sports journalist, who told CNN:

"Unlike what happens with the big Brazilian clubs, Chapecoense's humble story and its magnificent run in the Copa Sudamericana was naturally embraced by Brazilian football fans in general, becoming a fan's favorite.

It was South America's Cinderella -- nobody could have predicted this macabre ending."

Football is a unifying force in Brazil. Usually it's the national team that provides that unification (or occasionally, as with the 7-1 loss to Germany at the 2014 FIFA World Cup hosted by Brazil, the disunity). But Chapecoense has inspired all Brazilians of late.

Everybody has rallied around the #ForçaChape hashtag. It translates as "Go Chape". Monuments are now turning green in honour of the club's colours.

And since the crash, which claimed 75 lives and left just six survivors, football clubs everywhere have joined the support.

Rio-based powerhouse Flamengo lent its support.

As did famous European clubs like Manchester United, which was involved in an infamous air crash in Munich in 1958 which killed 23, including 11 United players and staff, as well as eight journalists covering the team's trip.

Brazilian clubs have also offered support beyond condolences. A group of powerful clubs published a statement of solidarity overnight, offering to provide players to Chapecoense, and calling for them to be made exempt from relegation for the next three seasons.

Here's part of their statement:

"Though we are aware of the irreparable damage caused by this terrible event, the clubs understand that now is the moment for unity, support and assistance for Chapecoense.

In this regard, the clubs announce solidarity measures towards Chapecoense, which will consist of, among other things:

(i) Free loan players for the 2017 season;

(ii) A formal request to the Brazilian Football Confederation for Chapecoense not to be subject to relegation to Serie B of the Brazilian championship for the next three seasons. If Chapecoense finish the championship in the bottom four, the team in 16th place would be relegated.

This is the minimum gesture of solidarity that is at our disposal at present, but it is endowed with the most sincere objective of reconstructing this institution of Brazilian football, which has been lost."

Meanwhile, a Brazilian sports lover who this reporter met at the Rio Olympics earlier this year emailed overnight to say "this would have been the most important game since creation".

And so it must have seemed at the time. But for once in Brazilian life, the football side of things side of things is no longer so important.

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