• Club in middle of fairytale season after reaching Copa Sudamericana final
• Chapecoense promoted to top flight in 2013 for first time since 1979
Chapecoense, the Brazilian team on board the plane that has crashed in Colombia, were in the middle of a fairytale season before the tragedy struck.
This should have been the most glorious week in the history of the club. Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, relative small fry in the ecosystem of Brazilian football, were flying to Colombia to take part in their first continental final when the plane crashed carrying 81 people, 76 of whom have died.
The mood in the camp had been buoyant and for good reason: Chapecoense had seen off strong opponents in the previous rounds and had been playing with such grit that even a two-leg meeting with a strong Atlético Nacional side held little fear.
It was going to be an occasion to saviour, at the end of another season of achievement. Alongside their endeavours in the Copa Sul-Americana (the South American equivalent of the Europa League), Chape have already secured their highest finish in the top flight, clambering above clubs with more illustrious back stories and far greater financial resources for the third year in a row since promotion.
This is a club that only came into existence in the 70s, the result of a merger between two amateur teams. They quickly enjoyed success, winning the local state championship within five years of their founding, but remained a regional concern until recently, when their ascent through the divisions captured the imagination of Brazilians.
From their nadir in 2008, when they did not qualify for the fourth division of Brazil’s national league, Chapecoense have risen up the pyramid with every passing year: third in Série D; seventh, fifth and third in Série C; second in Série B; 15th, 14th and with one game of the 2016 remaining, ninth in Série A.
Theirs is a story of overcoming: a team from a relatively small, relatively unfashionable city mixing it with the big boys. Even in the top flight their squad remained modest, their most recognisable player probably Cléber Santana, once of Atlético Madrid and Real Mallorca. The return leg against Atlético Nacional was due to take place in Curitiba, some 400km away from Chapecó because their homely Arena Condá lacks the capacity and infrastructure to host a major final.
It is not surprising that a team punching so far above their weight had been the subject of comparisons with the Premier League champions, Leicester City. Indeed, this was a link that the coach, Caio Júnior, was keen to embrace back in September. “Our team really reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title,” he said after a league win over Fluminense. “I want to make a mark this season with this club, this group of players.”
They had achieved that in the Sul-Americana, seeing off the Argentinian sides Independiente and San Lorenzo en route to the final. There were rarely fireworks – penalties were required in the round of 16, away goals in the semi-final – but the team’s work ethic shone through time and time again.
Tuesday morning’s events in Medellín, only add to the feeling of loss. This was a side close to the peak of their powers, on the way to a final few would have given them a chance of reaching. It is a tragedy in the truest sense of the word.