A charter plane carrying a Brazilian football team crashed in the mountains in Colombia late on Monday, killing 76 people. Five people reportedly survived the disaster. Travelling on the doomed airliner that crashed were the players and staff of a Brazilian football club about to complete a fairytale journey from unknowns to would-be South American champions. For the Chapecoense Real team, the disaster means the cruel end of a story that had been meant to climax with an unexpected chance for glory on Wednesday against Colombia's Atletico Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final.
Who are they?
The club's full name is Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, and it was founded in 1973. Chapecoense are based in Chapecoa, a small city of 200,000 people in the southern Santa Catarina state, approximately 450 kilometres from Porte Alegre.
The club was founded by the merger of Atletico Chapecoense and Independente, and it was hoped that the new club would be a symbol of pride for their small city. After their establishment, the club won the local state championship within five years but continued to remain a minnow side in the seasons that followed. Only a few years ago, Chapecoense were just another a gritty outfit in the Brazilian lower leagues, where players, unable to afford cars, took the bus to training. The club, which do not have any players in Brazil's national team or in the under-20 team, play their home matches at the 22,000-seat Arena Conda.
Club's fairytale rise
The steep climb from minnow to contender started in 2009 when Chapecoense entered the fourth division. Back then, the team's top goalscorer Bruno Rangel told Brazilian newspaper Lance, even the club's bus was "was very old." "But a lot has changed in the club since I arrived," he said. "There are still prejudices against the club but more because we're from the (country's) interior. That's diminishing, it's true. Every day we're more respected."
According to the Guardian, the club have risen up the pyramid with every passing year since 2008, when they did not qualify for the fourth division of Brazil’s national league. Chapecoense finished third in Serie D in 2009; seventh, fifth and third in Serie C in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively; second in Serie B in 2013; and since then 15th, 14th and with one game of the 2016 remaining, ninth in Serie A.
The club had fought their way into the lower half of the elite table, but the side wanted more. Even at this point Chapecoense were almost ignored by their own public, with only about 7,000 people turning up to home games, according to Globoesporte website.
Chapecoense entered the running for the Copa Sudamericana, equivalent to the Europa League in South America, for the first time in 2015 and didn't disappoint. In the club's first ever international tournament, the one-time unknowns didn't go all the way, but they performed bravely, even defeating Argentina's famed River Plate club.
Chape had their best season ever in 2016, earning 52 points from 37 matches. Coach Caio Junior said back in September after a league win over Fluminense, "Our team really reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title." On Sunday, the team lost at Palmeiras 1-0, a result which clinched the Brazilian league title for the host team.
They had been scheduled to play the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final at the Couto Pereira Stadium, a 40,000-seat venue in Curitiba, a city 480 kilometers north of Chapeco. A group of rival fans, however, became so impressed with Chapecoense's amazing run in the competition that they started a campaign on social media to move the final to the iconic Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Who are the notable players?
Chape strikers Rangel and Kempes, both 34 years old, are among the top scorers in the Brazilian league, with 10 and nine goals, respectively. One of the team's top players is 35-year-old midfielder Cleber Santana, who played for Atletico Madrid from 2007-10. He is the club's central midfielder and captain.
Part of the team's recent rise is due to coach Junior, who joined the club this year after coaching in the Middle East. Born Luiz Carlos Saroli, he coached numerous Brazilian teams, including Palmeiras, Flamengo and Botafogo.
Another team leader was defender Helio Hermito Zampier Neto — commonly known as Neto.
Matheus Biteco, a defensive midfielder who also played as right back, is also on loan from Hoffenheim having joined the German side from Gremio in 2015.
According to reports, Colombian authorities have rescued six survivors of the 81 people who were aboard the plane.
"We were able to rescue six people alive but one of them died on the way to the hospital," Jose Gerardo Acevedo, a police commander, told reporters. One of the survivors was Alan Ruschel, a 27-year-old defender for the Brazilian team. Radio Caracol said two other players -- Marcos Danilo Padilla and Jackson Follmann -- also survived and were taken to area hospitals.
Tragic end to dream journey
This year, things seemed to be going wrong. The coach credited with Chapecoense's miraculous rise, Guto Ferreira, walked out and his replacement Junior lost his first game against the lowly Cuiaba. But the little team roared back, taking down Argentina's Independiente and Junior de Barranquilla. They were going to the final to meet the reigning Copa Libertadores champions Atletico Nacional and no one would write them off anymore.
On the way to Colombia, the team stopped off in Sao Paulo to play the penultimate game of Brazil's domestic league. Here they lost against Palmeiras, the team which ended the season as Brazilian champion. But there was a sense that the players had their minds on the bigger challenge awaiting them against Atletico.
Now their dreams have met a devastating end and on Wednesday at what would have been an intriguing first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final, there will be only silence.
(With inputs from agencies)