Five months after the tragic plane crash that took 71 lives, Chapecoense made the most of its second chance to face Atlético Nacional.
On November 28, 2016, the Brazilian club Chapecoense boarded LaMia flight 2933 to head to Medellín. They were set to face Atlético Nacional in the two-leg final of the Copa Sudamericana, the South American equivalent of the UEFA Europa League. But a series of oversights by both the pilots and the airline resulted in a plane without enough fuel to reach its destination and without any emergency options.
Of the 77 people on the plane, 71 lost their lives. 19 of the 22 Chapecoense players traveling to Colombia were killed, as well as dozens of support staff and journalists also traveling on the flight. It was the first major plane crash to impact a football team since the 1993 crash that wiped out the Zambia national team.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Nacional recommended that CONMEBOL award Chapecoense the Copa Sudamericana. The request was quickly honored by the South American confederation. This allowed the Brazilian club to enter this year’s Copa Libertadores, providing much-needed funds to help rebuild the roster and institutional infrastructure.
Last month, the team took the pitch for the first time since the crash upended the club and its supporters. Chapecoense defeated Venezuela’s Zulia FC 2-1 to open Copa Libertadores group play on March 7, with Reinaldo and Luiz Antonio goals fueling the victory. The Brazilians lost their first home match in the competition, falling 3-1 to Lanús of Argentina.
Still well placed in its group with four matches left to play in this stage of the tournament, Chapecoense turned its sights to the Recopa Sudamericana — an event similar to the UEFA Super Cup pitting the previous year’s Copa Sudamericana and Copa Libertadores winners against one another.
That Atlético Nacional won last year’s Copa Libertadores title has made this year’s Recopa Sudamericana that much more impactful. Prevented by mortal loss from meeting five months earlier, the Colombians and Brazilians will forever be linked in the way they came together to grieve and move forward. And it was only fitting that Nacional and Chapecoense were pitted against one another for the Recopa honors.
The first leg of the home-and-home series was held in Chapeco, providing the backdrop for an emotional and festive day. Fans of both sides feted the two clubs together, cheering both before and during the match:
Hinchas de Chapecoense recibiendo a Atlético Nacional pic.twitter.com/0NinjKEgkb
— Jaime F. Macias (@Jaimefmacias) April 4, 2017
Before the match, there were ceremonies which included speeches by the surviving players from the crash. Neto, the veteran center back who was one of the lucky few to emerge alive from the wreckage, implored the crowd, “Do not wait for a plane crash to say I love you to someone, do not wait for a plane crash to ask for forgiveness.”
— Anderson ✠ (@OCaraPraVc) April 4, 2017
It was a touching display all around, one that brought many of those in attendance and those watching to tears. But as the emotions ran high, there was still more to the evening. Even with all the cordiality and fraternal displays, though, this was still a competitive match between two of South America’s top clubs.
The visitors controlled the possession from the outset, but the hosts would get on the scoreboard first. Daniel Bocanegra committed a hand ball in the penalty area in the 23rd minute. The official flashed a yellow card and pointed toward the spot. Reinaldo coolly slotted the ball past Nacional goalkeeper Franco Armani:
Chapecoense took the 1-0 lead into the locker room at halftime, but Nacional found the equalizer within the first 15 minutes after returning from the break. Given the run of play for the Colombians, it appeared that a 1-1 draw was probably the best that the home fans could hope to see. As the 71st minute approached, the crowd commenced a memoriam for the 71 lost lives that has taken place at every home match since the crash:
— Diário de Futebol (@iFutebolCampeao) April 4, 2017
The tribute seemed to recharge Chapecoense. Three minutes later, the hosts got their opportunity to pull ahead once again. Bocanegra, the Nacional defender who gave up the penalty kick with his hand ball, was once again guilty of the play that set Chape up for the goal. Bocanegra conceded a corner kick, and Reinaldo booted in the cross. Halftime substitute Luiz Otávio rose to the ball, heading it past Armani to reclaim the lead for the home side:
The goal stood as the match winner, and Chapecoense will head to Medellín on May 10 for the second leg. Thanks to Nacional’s goal in Chapeco, the Colombians have the upper hand going into the decisive match. Yet Chapecoense have proven their resilience in even managing to be competitive this soon after the tragedy.
Regardless of what happens next month, the events from Tuesday night in Brazil demonstrate the best that can come from sports. The fans of Chapecoense and Nacional transcended the tendency to view opposing fans as the enemy, and demonstrated solidarity that will reverberate long after the trophy is awarded.