November 2017 Eternal Champions
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On November 28, 2016, LaMia Flight 2933 left Bolivia for Colombia. It was carrying the Chapecoense football club from Brazil to the Copa Sudamericana final -- the first appearance in the club's 44 year history. The plane crashed as it approached the airport. Only six of the 77 passengers survived, including three players.
In Medellin, instead of the first leg of the final, there was a memorial, attended by 50,000 local supporters. “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 in Chapeco.
The challenges to Chapecoense in 2017 were many, way beyond just rebuilding a team. The generous decision by Atletico Nacional to cede them the Copa Sudamericana trophy did put the decimated outfit into the prestigious Copa Libertadores for the first time, but they were knocked out in the group stage after being docked three points for fielding a suspended player. Chapecoense won their local state league in May and are now fighting to stay in the Brazilian top flight.
One playing survivor – defender Neto – looks likely to be able to return to a relatively normal life one day. Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann faces a much sterner challenge after having part of his right leg amputated, and has since taken another job at the football club. Follmann said he hopes to one day compete in the Paralympics.
On August 7 this year, another miracle happened: for the first time since the tragedy, the 27-year-old defender Alan Ruschel, who had surgery to repair a spinal cord injury, returned to the field against FC Barcelona in a friendly at Camp Nou. Ruschel played the first 35 minutes of the match before being subbed out and receiving a standing ovation.