After tragic plane crash, Chapecoense begin the painful process of rebuilding
Rui Costa, Chapecoense's sporting director -- a namesake of the former AC Milan and Portugal star, mind you -- recalls one of the most challenging moments of the already highly demanding job he started a little more than a month ago. In a dressing room that resembled a meet-and-greet session at a multinational company seminar, he needed to help create a team.
"I told them the truth: every single one of them had been chosen by the technical staff to be there. No player was pushed to the club or dumped at our door. 'You have been selected to participate in the biggest project in world football.' That's what I told them," Costa said last week during one of the several interviews given ahead of Chape's emotional first game after the Medellin plane crash -- a tragedy that claimed the life of his predecessor, Mauro Stumpf, among 70 others.
The 2-2 draw against Brazilian champions Palmeiras -- also their last opponents before the ill-fated trip to Colombia for the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final -- by no means should be an indication of how the club will perform this season. But Costa's message is much more than a pep talk; hardly two months after seeing pretty much the whole squad disappear (only nine players hadn't boarded the doomed flight), Chape managed to sign 22 new players for a season in which they will need way more than solidarity to get by.
CONMEBOL's decision to award the Brazilian side the Copa Sudamericana title and a Copa Libertadores spot means that Chape are now looking at a crowded schedule in 2017 that, according to the club's calculations, could amount to 71 games. More than half of those (38) will be part of Chape's Campeonato Brasileiro campaign, arguably the most important competition for a group of players who barely know one another but who will look to extend the club's honorable record of seeing off relegation in all three seasons since returning to the first division in 2014.
That's why Costa's project is so big. He knows there's work to be done on the pitch by the players and coach Vagner Mancini -- a journeyman who worked at 12 clubs in the 12 years before joining Chape but one who also boasts an underdog fairytale in the form of Paulista's still-incredible conquest of the Copa do Brasil in 2005.
Chape have to do it without throwing their philosophy out the window. Almost half of the newcomers have arrived on loan, in deals where their original clubs will foot the wage bill in a gesture of solidarity -- the only name non-Brazilian fans will have heard of is Wellington Paulista, who spent a couple of months on loan with West Ham in 2013 without making a first-team appearance.
The purse strings are tight as usual: Chape has a wage cap of 100,000 Brazilian reals ($31,700) a month, and their monthly wage budget is estimated to be around the equivalent of $630,000, five times less than that of champions Palmeiras, for example. Austerity is engraved in the Chape ethos, and it has been applauded by sports industry analysts in Brazil. Amir Somoggi who specializes in the study of Brazilian clubs' finances, points out that while the Southern side was last among the 20 first-division teams in terms of revenue generated, they had the best revenue-to-debt ratio.
"Their business model has always been very responsible, and it is more important than ever now that they have to rebuild the squad. It is not clear what is the impact that effort will have on their finances in 2017, but Chape are expected to double their income in relation to 2016 because of the participation in the Libertadores and marketing actions", Somoggi said.
Somoggi also points to the fact that the Medellin tragedy has raised a lot of awareness for a club that many people outside Brazil had never heard of. "What happened last year was horrible, but Chape are now more famous abroad than many established teams".
It doesn't look as if Chape wants to take such a leap, though. The pride of Chapeco -- a small town for Brazilian standards and as removed as you could get from Brazil's main touristic routes, unless you are interested in meat processing -- the club is just trying to get back to some kind of normality after a period of intensity that hasn't subsided as much as one would think. For the friendly against Palmeiras, for example, Chape received 241 accreditation requests from journalists from nine countries, numbers that perhaps would not happen even if the national team decided to play at Arena Conda, the club's stadium.
The will to look ahead is symbolized by the plight of Alan Ruschel and Helio Neto, two of the three players who survived the crash and the only ones who can dream of a return to the game -- the other, goalkeeper Jackson Follmann, had a leg amputated.
"We will forever have horrendous memories for what happened and nothing will erase them. But we need to soldier on in life, and that is a way to honor all those guys who are not here with us anymore. I want to be back to help the team and the city as soon as I can," said Ruschel, who fractured his spine in the accident.
On Wednesday night, Ruschel, Neto and Follmann were in Rio, where they were paraded in front of nearly 19,000 fans before Brazil and Colombia played a friendly to benefit of the victims of the crash. Using only domestic players, the Selecao won 1-0, and the result meant Brazil will climb to the top of the FIFA rankings for the first time since May 2010. Despite not having a single player on the pitch, Chape managed to inspire even the Selecao.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.