'Impossible to Believe': Brazilian Soccer Team's Fairy-Tale Rise Ends in Tragedy | NBC 10 Philadelphia
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'Impossible to Believe': Brazilian Soccer Team's Fairy-Tale Rise Ends in Tragedy

Thousands of fans gathered Tuesday to mourn at Chapeco's cathedral and outside the team's small green-and-white concrete stadium

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    Authorities say six people survived and more than 70 others were killed when a plane carrying a Brazilian professional soccer team crashed in Colombia Monday night. The team was on its way to the finals of an important South American championship. Expressions of grief are pouring in from all over the soccer world. South America’s federation canceled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity. (Published Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016)

    For the players on the humble Brazilian club from an out-of-the-way city known for its agribusiness plants, these were going to be the games of their lives.

    Chapecoense was having the best season in its 43-year history, heading to the first of two matches in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's No. 2 club tournament. The once-downtrodden club and its itinerant players were enjoying the heights of soccer glory.

    It all ended suddenly late Monday night on a muddy Colombian hillside. Their chartered aircraft crashed south of Medellin, killing 71 of the 77 people aboard, including most of the team. Three players were among the survivors.

    "It's impossible to believe this tragedy, impossible to believe what happened, impossible to believe that the plane crashed, impossible to believe that athletes, human beings were on this plane, impossible to believe that these people left their families. ... Today the world cries, but heaven rejoices in receiving Champions." — Barcelona and Brazil star Neymar wrote on Instagram.

    The tragedy stunned the southern city of Chapeco and its 200,000 residents, and thousands of fans gathered Tuesday to mourn at the local cathedral and outside the team's small green-and-white concrete stadium.

    "The city is very quiet," businessman Cecilio Hans said. "People will only believe once the bodies start to arrive."

    On social media, haunting last photos showed the smiling players boarding the flight to Colombia for the first of two matches against Atletico Nacional.

    In one photo, the team celebrated a last-minute save by goalkeeper Danilo only a week ago against Argentine club San Lorenzo. The save guaranteed Chapecoense a spot in the final — and ultimately cost Danilo his life in the crash.

    76 Killed in Colombia Plane Crash

    [NATL] 76 Killed in Colombia Plane Crash
    A plane carrying 81 people crashed outside Medellin, Colombia, on Monday night. The Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil was on board, on their way to a championship series. Officials said five people survived and 76 people have died. (Published Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016)

    "Now I wish he would have conceded that goal," said 17-year-old fan Rubens Vieira.

    The club, known as Chape, was in the midst of a remarkable run. As recently as 2009, the club was playing in Brazil's fourth division, but it won promotion to the top league in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s.

    Victories over San Lorenzo and Independente — two of Argentina's fiercest squads — as well as Colombian club Junior took the team to the Copa Sudamericana finals, the equivalent of the UEFA Europa League tournament.

    On Sunday, Chapecoense nearly defeated famed Sao Paulo club Palmeiras, which won 1-0 to claim its first Brazilian league title in decades. Chape had gained admirers for its stout play against Palmeiras, and everything was set for Wednesday's showdown in Colombia. The second match was to be a week later in Brazil.

    Hans remembered that about a decade ago, "this club nearly disappeared. Then businessmen started to help."

    Few of the players had an international profile, and none had any appearances with Brazil's glitzy national team or time with top European clubs. Most had played all over Brazil and Latin America. A few like Cleber Santana had reached Europe, playing with Atletico Madrid from 2007-10.

    Chape strikers Bruno Rangel and Kempes, both 34, were among the top scorers in the Brazilian league, with 10 and nine goals, respectively.

    The only players to survive were goalkeeper Jakson Follmann, defender Hélio Zampier, commonly known as Neto, and defender-midfielder Alan Ruschel.

    Follmann's father says his son is alive thanks to a "miracle of God," citing the chances of surviving an airplane crash "are practically zero." Paulo Follmann said he has not spoke to his son and does not know how serious his condition is.

    But doctors at the Columbian hospital where Jakson Follmann is being treated said they amputated the goalkeeper's right leg and that he is in an intensive care unit in stable condition.

    Part of Chape's recent rise was due to coach Caio Junior, who joined the club this year after guiding teams in the Middle East. Born Luiz Carlos Saroli, he coached numerous Brazilian teams, including Palmeiras, Flamengo and Botafogo.

    He was among the dead. But his son, Matheus Saroli, survived, saying in a Facebook post that he missed the flight "because I forgot my passport."

    An Argentine player on the club, Alejandro Martinuccio, also missed the flight because of an injury during a game, he told Argentina's La Red radio.

    "I feel deep sadness. The only thing I can ask is prayers for the companions who were on the flight," he said.

    Psychologist Sonia Smaniotto said she came to the stadium in Chapeco at 7 a.m. to help counsel bereaved fans.

    "This is horrible for the city, but it will be even worse for the families," she said. "Each burial will be the burial of a hero because those families of footballers are built around their careers. These families were hoping to be on the top of the world. Now they've lost the center of their lives."

    A week ago, striker Tiaginho had just learned he was going to be a father for the first time. The 22-year-old leaves behind a wife, an unborn child.

    Also among the dead were 20 sports journalists, including cameramen, photographers, commentators and reporters from radio stations in Brazil as well as larger media outlets such as Fox Sports and Globo, a large Brazilian conglomerate.

    Fox lost six journalists, including Mario Sergio Pontes de Paiva, a former player who worked as a commentator for Fox Sports.  He played briefly for Brazil's national team in the early 1980s and had a long career as a midfielder and coach with many Brazilian clubs. He last coached Brazilian club Internacional in 2009 and Ceara in 2010.

    One journalist was among the six survivors: Rafael Valmorbida of Radio Oeste Capital, a station in Chapeco.

    "We lost more than just a team," said the station's website. "We lost friends, partners, colleagues and family members."

    "This is a very, very sad day for football," FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in a statement. "At this difficult time our thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends."

    Brazilian President Michel Temer is declaring three days of official mourning, soccer great Pele called it a "tragic loss," and Brazilian champion Palmeiras asked the country's football confederation for permission to wear Chapecoense's jersey in its last match of the season.

    Around the world, the sport paused to remember the victims.

    Barcelona and Real Madrid have held a minute of silence before their practice sessions. France's top two leagues said there would be a minute's silence at Tuesday night's games, and defending League One champion Paris Saint-Germain also tweeted a photo of its players and staff standing in silent tribute.

    Medellin-based Atletico Nacional said it was asking the South American soccer confederation to give the Copa Sudamericana title to Chape as a tribute to the players who died.

    In addition, some of Brazil's top clubs said they want to give players to Chape on a free loan for the 2017 season. They also say the club should not be relegated to the second division for three years as it recovers from the disaster.

    "The dream is not over. We will fight back when it's time," said Chape's acting club president Gelson Della Costa.

    "Now it's time to take care of the families," he said.