Soccer

Brazilian team back on field after plane crash decimated roster

Chapecoense players Neto, left, goalkeeper Follmann, on the wheelchair, and Alan Ruschel, right, the three players that survived the air crash, arrive for an Sudamericana trophy award ceremony prior to a friendly match against Palmeiras, in Chapeco, Brazil, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Almost two months after the air tragedy that killed 71 people, including 19 team players, Chapecoense plays at its Arena Conda stadium against the 2016 Brazilian champion Palmeiras.
Chapecoense players Neto, left, goalkeeper Follmann, on the wheelchair, and Alan Ruschel, right, the three players that survived the air crash, arrive for an Sudamericana trophy award ceremony prior to a friendly match against Palmeiras, in Chapeco, Brazil, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Almost two months after the air tragedy that killed 71 people, including 19 team players, Chapecoense plays at its Arena Conda stadium against the 2016 Brazilian champion Palmeiras. AP

Two months after 19 players and 24 club officials died in a plane crash in the Andes Mountains, the Brazil team Chapecoense returned to the soccer field this weekend.

“Chape,” as the club is affectionately known, was almost completely decimated by the Nov. 28 tragedy as the team was flying to Medellin, Colombia to play Atletico Nacional in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. Only six of the 77 passengers survived, including three players — all of whom remain injured and unable to play.

Other than the three surviving players, the remaining club members included six players who did not make the trip, two physiotherapists, and a few members of the medical staff. The town of 200,000 held a memorial with 50 coffins lined up at that stadium, and has been in mourning ever since.

But little by little, there has been an attempt to bring the soccer club back to life. Coach Vagner Mancini was hired to replace Caio Junior, who died in the crash. New players have been signed, and the team was scheduled to play a friendly at home Saturday against Palmeiras. Chape’s first competition match will be Jan. 26.

“We have to build a team, a coaching staff and a club infrastructure in a season in which Chape will be in demand,” Mancini told The Associated Press.

“I understand now that the city was so affected because the club and the city are run like a family. The players we brought are cut from that cloth, but we have to reach a higher level now.”

Chape is a small club that was having a fairy-tale season before the crash. Atletico Nacional decided to award the Copa Sudamerica title to the Brazilian team, which means Chape will qualify for the Copa Libertadores for the first time. The team also hopes to stay in the first division, and has several fundraising matches planned, including one against Barcelona.

Chapeco Mayor Luciano Buligon said: “Our weekends were about three things: family, church and Chapecoense. It has been hard to get the city back on track because the wounds are still very open. But we are slowly moving on.”

The three players who survived were defender Neto, winger Alan Ruschel and goalkeeper Follmann.

“I will be here to give support to the players that come,” Neto said. “It’s not easy to represent all those who died, but I want to be fit to play so I can be more than a symbol. I want to make a real contribution.”

Neto and Ruschel are expected to return later this year. Follmann had part of his right leg amputated. He may become a member of the team staff.

“I was in the front seats, then I changed with a friend of ours that is now gone,” Ruschel said. “I am pretty sure that that made me survive, because our goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was next to me and he also escaped. It was Follmann who told me to sit next to him, so I guess he also saved my life. I will have to live with this feeling forever.”

▪ Futsal on the rise: A fast, small-sided indoor version of soccer is gaining popularity in South Florida. Futsal, short for Futsala, is played on a hard court with four players and a goalkeeper on each team.

The game originated in Uruguay, quickly spread to Brazil, other South American countries, Europe, and some parts of the United States.

NBA owner Mark Cuban last year invested in the Premier Futsal League, a national pro league expected to kick off in 2018. Miami is one of the cities that might get a franchise.

“Futsal is great for kids because it helps them with their soccer skills and footwork,” said Hugo Almeida, who runs FC Futsal at 6800 S.W. 81 Terrace in South Miami. One of his teams recently won the Southeast Regional and advanced to the nationals.

“I grew up playing it in Brazil, and kept playing when I lived in Des Moines, Iowa, because up north people play in the winter. Here in Miami, everyone plays soccer outdoors all year, so it’s taken a little longer to catch on. But lately more and more kids are signing up.”

For information: fcfutsal.com

Who’s leading

English Premier League: Chelsea (52), Tottenham (46), Liverpool (45), Arsenal (44), Manchester City (43).

La Liga: Real Madrid (43), Sevilla (39), Barcelona (38), Atletico Madrid (34), Real Sociedad (32).

Serie A: Juventus (45), Napoli, Roma (44), Lazio (40), Milan (37).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (42), Leipzig (39), Hoffenheim (31), Dortmund 30, Hertha (30).

Ligue 1: Nice (46), Monaco, PSG (45), Lyon (34), Guingamp (31).

On TV

Southampton vs. Leicester City (7 a.m., NBCSN); Arsenal vs. Burnley (9:15 a.m., NBCSN); Athletic Club vs. Atletico Madrid (10:15 a.m., BEIN); Chelsea vs. Hull City (11:30 a.m., NBCSN); Eibar vs. Barcelona (2:45 p.m., BEIN).

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