Rebuilding Chapecoense: The inside story of a broken club's impossible repair
The telephone first started ringing at 4am. It was Osmar Machado’s 66th birthday. At first, he ignored the sound: he thought it was just a friend playing a prank, as he had done in previous years. However, as the calls persisted he finally, and wearily, reached out for the receiver. It was just after dawn had broken in Porto Alegre, deep in the south of Brazil.
“Any news on your son yet?” an old acquaintance asked the shoe salesman, without mentioning Osmar’s age. “How would I know?” he replied. “The team travelled to Colombia last night. The match is tomorrow. Why do you ask?”
An ominous silence followed, and Osmar realised that something was gravely wrong. He hung up, rushed to the television and turned on the news. He wouldn’t move for several hours.
Dark day for football
As details emerged, it became apparent that it had all been completely avoidable, and was the result of truly irresponsible cost-cutting
What had unfolded has now been well documented as one of the sorriest disasters in football history. A BAe 146 regional airliner, operated by a little-known Bolivian charter company called LaMia, had run out of fuel and crashed into a hillside outside the Colombian city of Medellin. The plane had been carrying four crew members and 73 passengers, including almost everyone associated with Brazilian club Chapecoense: players, coaches, staff, directors – as well as 20 journalists and commentators covering the team.
The side had been en route to the first leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second most prestigious continental trophy, and the most important game in Chape’s history. The plane went down just 10 miles from their intended destination, Jose Maria Cordova airport. There were just six survivors, including three players.
Grief and shock were soon followed by anger. As details emerged, it became apparent that it had all been completely avoidable, and was the result of truly irresponsible cost-cutting.
Chapecoense had started their fateful trip from Sao Paulo, where an XI packed with reserves had lost to Palmeiras, the new Brazilian champions. Nobody in Chapeco, a city of 200,000 residents in the state of Santa Catarina, was at all bothered about that result. What excited them was the next fixture – a real shot at underdog glory. This was a club that had been expected to end the season in a relegation dogfight, rather than tussling for a major trophy with the famous Colombian outfit, Atletico Nacional.
Rather than jetting direct from the south of Brazil to the north of Colombia, the relatively small aircraft made a brief stop at Bolivia’s Santa Cruz de la Sierra airport. Club directors were more than happy with the arrangements. After all, the Argentina squad - Lionel Messi included – had flown home after a World Cup qualifier on the same plane just 18 days earlier. And Chapecoense had flown to Colombia to face Junior Barranquilla in the last eight of the Copa Sudamericana.
Seconds after all the lights went off, and passengers began to feel uneasy, the plane collided with some trees on the Cerro Gordo hillside
But this time, they weren't safe. Minutes before the plane reached its final destination in Medellin, the jet simply had no gas in the tank. The pilot and airline owner had left Bolivia with far less aviation fuel than recommended by authorities – and they had done it in order to save money, investigations would later reveal.
Seconds after all the lights went off, and passengers began to feel uneasy, the plane collided with some trees on the Cerro Gordo hillside at 250 kilometres per hour. It then slid downwards for 400 metres. The survivors, after crawling from the wreckage, stood in the rain for hours, in the middle of the night, until being rescued.
The tragedy put Chapecoense – widely toasted in their homeland as a sort of Brazilian Leicester, such was the romance of their recent history – back in the headlines, but for the worst reasons. They joined an all-too-long list of teams decimated by air crashes: Torino (1949), Manchester United (1958), Alianza Lima (1987) and Zambia (1993).
Osmar’s son Filipe Machado, a 32-year-old central defender who had signed for the club in May, was named among the 71 deceased. After the initial shock, his father decided there was only one thing he could do: drive 280 miles north-west to Chape’s 20,000-seater Arena Conda, not far from the border with Argentina.
His son’s family had settled in quiet, rural and religious Chapeco after a lifetime of living in various hotels in disparate corners of the football globe, such as Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.
Filipe was happy there, but still ambitious. He dreamed of playing for a bigger club, and saw winning the Copa as the ideal way to get himself into the shop window. Osmar hoped his son would get a chance to play for one of the big two of Porto Alegre – Internacional or Gremio. All he had to do was to win that final, and put in an excellent performance.
As the grieving father approached Chapeco, he considered taking his own life by smashing his car into a lamppost
As Osmar travelled to Chapecoense’s hometown, he listened to the country songs that Filipe, and most Brazilian footballers, tend to love. He also went back through the numerous voice messages his boy had sent him via WhatsApp. “Being a footballer is great but it’s a lonely life, Dad,” one said. “Travelling is not as exciting when you are doing it all the time and are far away from your loved ones.”
As the grieving father approached Chapeco, he considered taking his own life by smashing his car into a lamppost. The only thing that stopped him was the string of messages of love and support from his many friends and family.
“I had to pull over at the side of the road to cry every 10 kilometres or so,” Osmar told FourFourTwo a month after the tragedy. “But that was for the best. My son was also my greatest friend and I wanted to keep thinking of him, cherishing his memory. I was a lot calmer, and out of tears, by the time I arrived in Chapeco. I am alive now because I had that time alone.”
He soon realised that he was not alone in his sorrow. In fact, he started to sense that Chapecoense – his son included – would be mourned across the planet. He wasn’t wrong. Hours after the crash, homages started pouring in. Neymar, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo all paid heartfelt tributes. Then came NBA stars, Pope Francis and members of Guns N’ Roses. They grieved for Chapecoense, a team largely unknown, even in Brazil, a decade ago.
The Brazilian Football Confederation postponed the domestic cup final that was scheduled for the following day, and did the same for the last round of league matches. All over the country, players went back home to weep for friends that were now lost, while others were reflecting on the feeling that it could easily have been them.
One of most shaken was midfielder Camilo Farias, Botafogo’s No.10. He had played for two years at Chapecoense, leaving for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Shabab FC a few months into 2016. “I didn’t adapt there, and I was bound to come back to Chape,” the 30-year-old said later. “Every player on that flight was a friend of mine. It is a very strange feeling. A mix of sadness, of relief for not being on the flight, and of guilt for leaving that place in the team for someone else that died.”
"We lost a pillar of society"
In Medellin, instead of the first leg of the final, there was a memorial, attended by 50,000 local supporters
Farias and millions more in Brazil were watching on TV when a tired Osmar and other family members of the 19 players that perished were welcomed by mourning fans at Chapecoense’s stadium. What Machado remembers the most about that November day was the eerie silence across the entire city. “If you heard anyone in Chapeco, it was either a family member or a fan in grief,” he said.
In Medellin, instead of the first leg of the final, there was a memorial, attended by 50,000 local supporters. They looked nearly as distraught as the people of Chapeco. “This title belongs to Chapecoense and we will be happy as runner-ups,” Atletico Nacional’s coach Reinaldo Rueda conceded. “They arrived with a dream. They will leave as legends.” The Brazilians soon got the message and – in tears – 20,000 fans celebrated the posthumous title inside the Arena Conda.
Osmar was on the pitch, at Chape’s tribute, when the news of the title ‘win’ filtered through. Celebrating a victory in the middle of a heartfelt memorial service was deeply surreal. “The trophy was supposed to be my birthday present, but it all felt a little out of place,” he says. “I guess that the city needed something to cling to in the middle of the tragedy. But there was nothing to celebrate, for me. My son promised we would drink for weeks if Chape won the final. There was no game and I had to settle for his casket, with his body in pieces.”
However, the Mayor of Chapeco, Luciano Buligon, felt that the Copa Sudamericana title was a way to help heal his hometown’s heartbreak. A hardcore Chape supporter, he was expected to be on the flight – only for city hall affairs to keep him in Sao Paulo for an additional day. Since the crash, he has lost much sleep thinking of his lost colleagues, which included the club chairman Sandro Pallaoro, one of those key to their amazing rise from the fourth tier to the top.
“Our Sundays were about three things: family, going to church and Chapecoense,” says Buligon. “We lost a pillar of the society of Chapeco, at least for now. We cancelled all the festivities planned for Christmas and it has been hard to get the city back on track. The wounds are still very open. Of course there will be new players. Life will bring other issues and people will move on. But our people had their dream stolen in a tragic way, just before it could have come true. That is now gone forever.”