The moments of silence by some of the world’s biggest clubs were touching. So, too, the expressions of sorrow and solidarity by superstars Neymar and Lionel Messi. No doubt there will eventually be a memorial where respects can be paid years, even generations, from now.
But the most fitting tribute to Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer team came from its opponent. Atletico Nacional said it considers Chapecoense the Copa Sudamericana champion, and requested that South American soccer authorities do the same.
“The accident involving our soccer brothers from Chapecoense will impact us for the rest of our lives and will leave an indelible imprint on Latin American and world soccer,” Atletico Nacional said in its statement Tuesday asking CONMEBOL to award the Copa Sudamericana title to Chapecoense.
A title won’t bring back the 71 people who died late Monday night when the plane carrying Chapecoense, its traveling party and several media members crashed into the Colombian mountains. It won’t erase the grief and pain of those left behind, either. Chapecoense has been forever scarred and nothing, certainly not something as trivial as a tournament title, can change that.
That isn’t the point, however. Awarding Chapecoense the title of South America’s second-largest tournament is a way to show respect for the players who had defied conventional soccer wisdom and support for the fans who cheered them.
Chapecoense is not a traditional powerhouse. It represents an agricultural city of 210,000 some 800 miles south of Rio de Janeiro. The club has only been in existence since 1973, and was playing in Brazil’s second division just four years ago.
But to the growing delight of fans around the continent, Chapecoense had risen to challenge the elite in both Brazilian and South American soccer. Though it currently sits in ninth place, 25 points behind Palmeiras, just managing to avoid relegation in its first three seasons in the top division is a feat.
So far this season, it has draws against Brazilian elites Palmeiras, Flamengo and Corinthians, as well as a victory against Internacional. And it reached the finals of the Copa Sudamericana – akin to the Europa League – by knocking off Argentina’s San Lorenzo, best known as Pope Francis’ team, and seven-time Colombian champion Junior.
At a time when Brazil is struggling with economic and political crises and CONMEBOL has been rocked by corruption allegations, Chapecoense’s success was a feel-good story everyone could cheer. Watch the video of the team giddily celebrating after advancing to the Copa Sudamericana final, and it’s impossible not to smile at its delight.
To have it end on a fog-shrouded mountain makes the tragedy all the more unspeakable.
“Before boarding, they said they were seeking to turn their dream into reality,” Chapecoense chairman Plínio David de Nes Filho said, according to the New York Times.
“This morning, that dream is over.”
Sadly, this is not soccer’s first experience with such horror. Torino’s entire team was killed when its plane crashed in May 1949 on the way back to Italy from an exhibition in Lisbon. Nine years later, some of England’s best players were killed when a plane carrying Manchester United crashed on takeoff in February 1958.
And in 1993, the plane carrying Zambia’s national team to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Our thoughts and our prayers are with everyone that is affected by the tragedy,” Kalusha Bwalya, who was Zambia’s captain in 1993 but was spared because he was on a different flight, said on Twitter before retweeting a series of Tweets about the crash.
Those heartfelt sentiments, while providing some measure of comfort, often feel woefully inadequate at a time like this. There is a wish to do more, to let those grieving know their heartbreak will not be forgotten.
Awarding Chapecoense the Copa Sudamericana title might seem like a small gesture, all things considered. But it would immortalize the team in a way even a permanent memorial cannot. Every time the tournament is played from now on, Chapecoense will be a part of it.
The players of Chapecoense did something extraordinary in their too-short lives, defying expectations and delighting everyone who watched them do it. Let that, rather than the horrible way in which they died, be their legacy.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.