Flight was taking Brazilian team to game of their lives

Players of the Chapecoense soccer team before their Brazilian Series A Championship match in May.
REUTERS

Players of the Chapecoense soccer team before their Brazilian Series A Championship match in May.

These were going to be the games of their lives for players on the humble Brazilian club Chapecoense.

They'd reached the two-game final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's No 2 club tournament; as near the top the world's soccer pyramid as most of the itinerate players - and its coach - were likely to reach.

The dream ended when a charter flight carrying the club sliced into a Colombian hillside on Monday night (Tuesday NZ Time), killing 75 and scattering six survivors among the snarled remains of wings and fuselage.

REUTERS

Plane carrying a Brazilian top league team crashed into a Colombian jungle, killing more than 70 of the 81 passengers on board.

The flight was bound for Medellin, Colombia, and a first-leg match against Colombia's Atletico Nacional, which was to be followed a week later by the second and decisive game in Brazil - the biggest the southern city of Chapeco and its 200,000 residents would ever see.

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"This morning I said goodbye to them and they told me they were going after the dream, turning that dream into reality,'' Chapecoense board member Plino de Nes told TV Globo. "The dream was over early this morning.''

Players and managers from Chapecoense on board a flight, believed to be the one that crashed.
@ANDRESFELIPE/TWITTER

Players and managers from Chapecoense on board a flight, believed to be the one that crashed.

The team from an out-of-the-way industrial city near the Argentina border was in the middle of a fantastic season.

The club - which was playing in the fourth division in 2009 - won promotion to Brazil's top league in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s. Last week, it advanced to the Copa Sudamericana finals - the equivalent of the UEFA Europa League tournament - after defeating two of Argentina's fiercest squads, San Lorenzo and Independiente, as well as Colombian club Junior.

REUTERS

Brazilian President Michel Temer grieves over the horrific loss of life in a plane crash in Colombia.

On Sunday, Chapecoense nearly defeated famed Sao Paulo club Palmeiras, which won 1-0 in a nationally televised match to claim its first Brazilian league title in decades.

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Chapecoense had won admirers for its stout play against Palmeiras, and everything was set for the showdown in Colombia.

Debris from the crash was spread across a wide area.
REUTERS

Debris from the crash was spread across a wide area.

"This is a very, very sad day for football,'' Fifa President Gianni Infantino said in a statement. "At this difficult time our thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends. Fifa would like to extend its most heartfelt condolences to the fans of Chapecoense, the football community and media organisations concerned in Brazil.''

Two goalkeepers, Danilo and Jackson Follmann, as well as a journalist travelling with the team and a Bolivian flight attendant, were found alive in the wreckage. But Danilo was later reported as dead, and authorities said another defender, Helio Zampier - who goes by Neto - had survived amid the confusion of sometimes conflicting early reports.

Few of the players on the surging team had an international profile - no appearances with Brazil's glitzy national team, nor time with top European clubs.

Players Dener, Ananias and Bruno Rangel, celebrate a goal against San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 2.
REUTERS

Players Dener, Ananias and Bruno Rangel, celebrate a goal against San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 2.

Most had played all over Brazil and Latin America. A few like Cleber Santana had reached Europe, playing with Atletico Madrid from 2007-10.

Chape strikers Bruno Rangel and Kempes, both 34 years old, were among the top scorers in the Brazilian league, with 10 and nine goals, respectively.

Part of the team's recent rise was due to coach Caio Junior, who joined the club this year after coaching in the Middle East. Born Luiz Carlos Saroli, he coached numerous Brazilian teams, including Palmeiras, Flamengo and Botafogo.

Flowers and messages for the players have been left in front of the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil.
REUTERS

Flowers and messages for the players have been left in front of the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil.

Though the coach was killed, his son Matheus Saroli said on Facebook that he'd missed the flight, which saved his life.

"I didn't board because I forgot my passport,'' he said.

An Argentine player on the club, Alejandro Martinuccio, was also saved. He wasn't on the flight because of an injury.

"I was saved because I got injured,'' he told Argentina's La Red radio. "I feel deep sadness. The only thing I can ask is prayers for the companions who were on the flight.''

Among the victims was Mario Sergio Pontes de Paiva, a former soccer player who worked as a commentator for Fox Sports.

Known as Mario Sergio, he played briefly for Brazil's national team in the early 1980s and had a long career as a midfielder and coach with many Brazilian clubs. He last coached Brazilian club Internacional in 2009 and Ceara in 2010.

Colombian aviation authorities say 21 journalists were among the passengers.

Chapecoense plays its home matches at the 22,000-seat Arena Conda. But it was too small to host next weeks' scheduled match, which was to be played a Couto Pereira Stadium, a 40,000-seat venue in Curitiba, a city 480km north of Chapeco.

There was even a move by some fans to move the match to Rio's famous Maracana stadium, which would be a perfect end to the dream.

"Brazilian football is in mourning,'' said Pele, Brazil's most famous player. "It is such a tragic loss.''

 - AP

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