Fans of Chapecoense, the Brazilian football club enjoying a fairy tale season until almost wiped out in a plane crash, gathered outside the stadium in shock and disbelief Tuesday.
All year the once struggling, impoverished club had delighted the people of Chapeco, a city of about 200,000 in Santa Catarina state. Now only grief remains.
Under fierce sunshine in the southern Brazilian state, fans in the team shirt congregated at the stadium where only last week their heroes had notched up another unlikely victory against San Lorenzo.
Many came with flowers and black ribbons to leave in the stadium.
“I heard the news on television. We got up at once and came here,” said one mourner, Nelson Maguluche, his voice cracking. “I’ve always been a fan. I went to all their games,” he said in tears.
Chapecoense was the little club that could, an outfit that only a few years ago was struggling in the lower leagues but turned into a giant slayer.
Late Monday, they were flying to Colombia to take on Atletico Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana finals when the charter plane crashed in hills near Medellin, killing more than 70 people, with six miraculous survivors.
In a stroke the club that defied all the odds had been practically wiped out.
“The pain is terrible. Just as we had made it, I will not say to the top, but to have national prominence, a tragedy like this happens. It is very difficult, a very great tragedy,” club vice-president Ivan Tozzo told SporTV.
“We’re all here at the stadium to help the people connected,” said Tozzo.
The mayor of Chapeco, Luciano Buligon, described the city’s despair, in tearful comments to TV Globo.
“We have moved from a dream to a true nightmare,” he said.
– Solidarity –
The survivors included three players: defenders Helio Neto and Alan Ruschel and another goalkeeper, Jakson Follmann. The other known survivors were two crew members and a journalist.
The team’s goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha, 31, died on the way to hospital, the civil aviation authority said. His last-minute save in the semi-final had ensured the team made it through to the Copa Sudamericana final.
A huge outpouring of solidarity from the footballing world followed.
Legends Pele and Maradona as well as current superstar Lionel Messi led tributes around the world.
Nacional quickly called for the Sudamericana title to be handed to its rivals “as a posthumous homage.”
In Brazil, big clubs including newly minted national league champions Palmeiras, Fluminense and Botafogo announced they would lend players free of charge to Chapecoense for the 2017 season.
“The clubs understand that this is a moment fo runity, support and help to Chapecoense,” they said in a statement, adding that other clubs would join the initiative.
The clubs also called on the Brazilian Football Confederation not to relegate Chapecoense to the second division during the next three years, to allow it time to rebuild, regardless of the results.
In a symbolic gesture, Palmeiras asked for permission to wear the stricken club’s shirt when it plays the final game of the year’s national league next month.
Many clubs depicted the Chapecoense club shield against a black background on their social media platforms.