After suffering that appalling air crash towards the end of 2016, Chapecoense’s overriding objective last year was to avoid dropping to Brazil’s second division.
There had been talk of protecting them from relegation for a period of maybe two years. The proud club from a small town in southern Brazil wanted none of it. They chose to stand or fall by their own merits. And after an eventful campaign, going through three coaches on the way, they pulled themselves so far out of danger that they finished eighth and made it into the qualifying round of this year’s Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League.
That campaign, though, has already come to an end. Chapecoense were beaten 1-0 both home and away by Nacional of Uruguay.
There is, though, the tiniest chance of a reprieve. During the first leg, in Chapecoense’s Arena Conda, two Nacional fans were filmed indulging in a disgraceful display of inhumane behaviour, mocking their opponents by imitating a falling aeroplane.
Chapecoense, in an act that perhaps falls a little short of the dignified standards the club have set, called for Nacional to be kicked out of the competition. A disciplinary process has begun – but since Nacional are in action in the next qualifying round on Wednesday, it seems unlikely to prosper.
Nacional were quick to deplore the action of their two supporters, cancelling their membership. One of the fans apologised on Uruguayan radio, and last Wednesday Chapecoense were warmly applauded as they took the field in Montevideo. A banner made by the fans asked them for forgiveness, and made the point that “two do not represent us.”
Forcing Nacional to play a game behind closed doors may be appropriate; not so much as a punishment, more as an opportunity to reflect on the way that the air disaster brought the continent together on an emotional basis – all too briefly, it now seems.
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And as far as Chapecoense are concerned, priorities return to normal. They were not going to win the Libertadores. The overall objective remains first division survival. And on the evidence of the two games against Nacional, that might prove more difficult this year than it was last.
In part, this is natural and inevitable. For years now Chapecoense have been punching above their weight to an almost absurd degree. The population of Chapeco is little more than 200,000, and their state of Santa Catarina has never been seen as one of the hotbeds of Brazilian football. And yet they made it from the fourth division to the first in six years. The team so tragically wiped out were on their way to becoming the first Brazilian side in three years to play in a continental final. And they started from scratch after the disaster and still managed to finish as the eighth best team in the land.
Last year’s heroics were fuelled by a level of emotional intensity that will surely prove difficult to maintain. Some of the players – loaned to them by other clubs – have moved on. And probably the most important player in the current side, Argentine midfielder Hector Canteros, is injured and missed both games against Nacional. There is time for him to recover before the first division kicks-off in April.
In his absence, Chapecoense were almost a parody of some of the recent limitations of domestic Brazilian football against Nacional. They had a midfield trio with almost no capacity to put passes together; two quick attacking full-backs whose main aim appeared to be charging forward and going to ground in search of free-kicks; and an aerial threat from set-pieces, with the big centre-backs sent up into the opposing area.
It all added up to two very disappointing performances with little constructive football played. But there is one bright development – again, something typical of the contemporary Brazilian game. Just 17, Bruno Silva gave two promising cameos off the bench, cutting in from wide left with skill, aggression and a direct eye for goal. He may have an important part to play in Chapecoense’s quest to avoid relegation once more.