After plane tragedy, Brazil’s Chapecoense looks for rebirth

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CHAPECO, Brazil  — At the game on Saturday afternoon, I was handed a little piece of origami. It had been delicately crafted from white card into the shape of a heart. The crack down the middle was an invitation to break it open and free a tiny message inside. It read “recomeçar” — Portuguese for “new beginning.”

After the cruel tragedy of the plane crash that killed 71 people, the Brazilian football club Chapecoense and its home town of Chapeco are starting again, laying the foundations for what they hope will one day become another fairytale journey to international success.

The black fabric bands that streaked like tears from the towers at the cathedral are gone. No longer does the front gate of every other property offer a message of condolence.

Ever since the plane carrying the team, coaching staff and top officials plunged into that Colombian hillside, every challenge facing what was left of Chapecoense has been monumental. The return of the bodies — to that epic rain-soaked funeral service — was a Herculean effort. In the last few weeks, they’ve assembled a squad of players that barely knew each other on New Year’s Day.

On Thursday, they’ll play their first competitive game together; ahead lies a grueling campaign which takes in three domestic league tournaments, a debut appearance in the Copa Libertadores, a domestic cup competition, an international super-cup match and a friendly in Barcelona. All in, more than 80 games for a group of men who’ve only just learned each other’s names.

For the team, moving on is essential. But such a rapid transition from trauma to tournament is uncomfortable for some of the families, who’ve barely had time to process the grief.

Amanda Machado had expected to marry the love of her life, Dener. Instead, she had to bury him two days after what would have been their wedding day.

This week, I was with her when returned to the empty apartment where they started their life together with their young son Bernardo. She burst into tears as soon as she opened the door.

Machado says it’s hard to see Chapecoense play again and explaining Dener’s fate to their son is difficult. “I’ve told him that Daddy is living in the clouds, but Bernardo says he’s just playing football and will be home soon.” Professional footballers in Brazil spend much of their time on the road.

She said it was especially tough to see another player wearing Dener’s number 6, but she has plans to keep his memory linked to it. She’s following through with plans she made with Dener to learn to be a DJ and she has already launched a confectionery business with a friend in Porto Alegre that they’ve called D6 Doces, or D6 Candy, for Dener’s initial and number. And the business’s logo depicts the fullback as an angel.

The heartbeat of the club — the locker room and treatment area underneath the main stand — has been transformed back to something resembling normality. Two months ago, it was inundated with grieving families and trauma counselors. Then, the only players in attendance were also stricken with grief. Two months later, the energy is back, the music is pumping in the weights room, the laughter and banter echoes off the whitewashed breeze block walls. Almost all the characters are new, but it feels like a football club once again.

There are still however, many links to the past. The club’s legendary goalkeeper, Nivaldo, who missed the flight to prepare for his 300th and final game before retirement, now works as a team manager and sits behind a desk in the corner office. The equipment manager of 21 years, Jorge Luis de Andrade, postponed his retirement for a year to train up a new group of locker room assistants. He says he wants to see the team preserve its Serie A status and when the crash survivors Neto and Alan Ruschel play again, he can retire. “Then, I will truly have seen it all.”

The strongest links to the past are the survivors. Ruschel and Neto are back at the stadium receiving treatment; goalkeeper Jackson Follmann, whose right leg was partially amputated, was released from hospital on Tuesday.

While the coach, Vagner Mancini, wants to put an end to the media interviews with the survivors at the club — “Everyone needs to move on from the disaster,” he says — the survivors themselves can’t help talking about it with each other.

“I still can’t believe that I’m alive,” was pretty much how Ruschel introduced himself to me, and he’s still trying to make sense of it. “Neto remembers the plane falling, I don’t. Jackson remembers being rescued, I don’t.”

Ruschel is pinning his hopes on a comeback in May, his coach says he can’t wait to have both him and Neto back on the field but is quick to point out that no one is rushing them: “Their wounds aren’t just physical, but psychological, too.”

Mancini says that he was first approached about coaching the team just seven days after the accident. “We discussed contracts a couple of days later, but I had already decided five minutes after that first call.”

In his opening team talk, he told the players that this would be the most important season of their lives. Tulio de Melo, a French league title winner and a former and now returned Chapecoense player, says he couldn’t agree more. “The meaning of this season is completely different. It’s about history, it’s about heart, it’s about feeling.” De Melo believes that sentiment extends to football fans all over the continent, “every game this season will feel like a home game.”

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy, and promoting 10 players from the youth team and combining them with 23 new recruits (one bought, 22 loaned) has produced obvious challenges. Part of the problem though has become a part of the solution; since everybody was new in town, they all became friends after a two-week stay in a downtown hotel. An early sign is the enthusiasm with which they play “peteleco” in training — anyone who drops the ball will immediately have a line of teammates behind him, baying to flick his ears.

But memories of the tragedy are everywhere at Chapecoense. The press officer, Sirli Freitas, is new to her job. The team’s media affairs used to be run by her husband, who died in the crash. She was a photographer but all her equipment was lost in the plane.

“The football club was destroyed, so all of us have an obligation to do our part,” Mancini says. “Everyone has arrived here with the same thinking — to reconstruct.”

That’s the personal goal of Ruschel, who now says he has two birthdays — when he was born in August, and when life began anew after the crash on November 29. “The lesson is that you should try and do good, try and do your best because we don’t take anything to the next world,” he said.

For all the positivity, the cracks remain if you know where to look. The locker room was the scene of the old team’s last — and now iconic — celebration when they were filmed banging their locker doors and chanting “Vamo Vamo Chape!” — “Go Go Chape!”

Ruschel chokes up when he thinks about that, and equipment manager de Andrade says he doesn’t have the courage to sing the song. He even fears leaving the sanctuary of the locker room on game days because outside he’ll hear what’s now an anthem for the fans and it’s just too painful.

The shirt numbers have not yet been reassigned — the team played Saturday without their names on their shirts and will do so again Thursday.

Tulio de Melo said the squad would have to agree who takes which number as they can’t retire the numbers of the dead “because there are just too many.”

He hopes that wearing the late players’ numbers would prove a reminder and an inspiration to play well.

So Dener’s number 6 will return to the pitch on the back of a new player as well as gracing Amanda Machado’s confectionery.

The rebirth will take many forms, but it is coming.