CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) – A survivor of the air crash two months ago that killed 19 members of Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer club lifted the Copa Sudamericana trophy on Saturday in honor of his dead teammates.
The moving moment came just before the rebuilt side played its first match since the Nov. 28 tragedy, facing Brazilian champion Palmeiras in a charity match. Defender Neto, who survived under the plane wreckage for almost 10 hours, held the trophy in front of 20,000 fans at Chapecoense’s sold-out Arena Conda stadium.
Earlier this week Neto said he spent hours in a gym working his arms to be able to lift the trophy. Neto was followed in lifting the prize by two other players who survived the crash – goalkeeper Jackson Follmann and winger Alan Ruschel. All three were in tears during the ceremony.
Family members of the victims also broke down crying as they were awarded medals. Chapecoense was awarded the trophy following the disaster, a move backed by Colombian club Atletico Nacional, which was scheduled to face Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericana final. Another survivor- radio journalist Rafael Henzel – announced the friendly match in a return to the broadcast booth.
The southern Brazilian city of Chapeco, just a short drive from the Argentine border, spent weeks in anticipation of Saturday’s match. Former Chapecoense player Janca said the grief is still there, and fans are suspicious about the new signings. But the hotdog vendor said he was still happy to see football back in the city of 200,000.
“It is just unbelievable that they managed to rebuild the entire team, and the club board in such a short time,” Janca said, as he prepared his hot dogs while listening to his radio – an old present from one of the crash victims. “It will take some time until people trust the new players, but there will surely be support for that.”
Doubts about the quality of the team surfaced immediately when Palmeiras scored the first goal on 11 minutes. But that didn’t last long. Two minutes later new defender Douglas Grolli, who once trained at Chapecoense’s academy, leveled the score. The steady performance against the Brazilian champions in the first half gave fans hope they will be competitive this season. The team’s schedule will be demanding. It must defend the Santa Catarina state championship, stay up in Brazil’s top-flight division, and compete in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious tournament.
The Brazilian team is also expected to play in several fundraisers for families of the victims, including one against Barcelona. The stadium broke out in chants of “Vamos, Vamos Chape” (Let’s go Chape) in Portuguese on 71 minutes, as a tribute to the 71 people killed in the crash in Colombia en route to the match. Only six survived. Colombian flags and Atletico Nacional shirts were visible throughout the stadium.
“We deserve to do well this season,” 17-year-old fan Diego Sandro said. “We have been through a lot and still we managed to get back on track.”
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