At first, local Brazilian student Rafael Follador Gabriel wasn’t sure what happened. Conflicting reports about an incident involving a popular underdog Brazilian soccer team started showing up on social media around midnight.
It wasn’t until 4:30 a.m. Tuesday that he learned the team’s plane had crashed in Columbia near Medellin, killing 71 people, including players, club members and journalists. Only three players, two crew members and one journalist survived, according to the Associated Press.
“We were just talking about this team, these players yesterday, talking about the match,” said Gabriel, a business student and soccer player at Lindenwood University. “I was really excited to watch it.”
The Chapecoense club was headed to Columbia for a highly anticipated match against Atletico Nacional of Medellin as part of the South American cup. The flight departed from Bolivia, then lost contact late Monday night, the Associated Press reported. Brazilian officials initially believed the crash was caused by an electric malfunction, though survivors said the plane ran out of fuel, according to the AP.
In a country where soccer is deeply ingrained in the fabric of society, the loss was devastating, Gabriel said, especially when all eyes were on the small underdog team that had seen enormous success since reaching the top division in 2014.
“They were such a small team. So friendly. Other teams in Brazil have millions of fans and are 120 or 130 years old. When you see a small team make it so far, everyone was supporting them.” Chapecoense was founded in 1973.
In Brazil, soccer is more important than politics, Gabriel said.
“You wake up and go to sleep thinking about soccer, talking about soccer,” he said. “I hope other teams do something to help them out and put aside their interests to help this team.”
A life-long soccer fan, Gabriel said it could take three to four years for the team to recover. As of Tuesday, soccer clubs and organizations were planning to allow Chapecoense to keep its place in the first division for at least three years. Atletico Nacional, the team Chapecoense was supposed to face in the Wednesday match, has asked tournament organizers to give the team cup to Chapecoense, Gabriel said.
“I just hope they stick to what they’re saying once the emotions are gone and they are rational again,” he added.
In the meantime, he encouraged his fellow Brazilian students to focus on the positive memories associated with Chapecoense’s rapid rise to the top.