Chapecoense somehow have risen above tragedy to top of first division
On Monday night, exactly six months since the air tragedy that wiped out almost their entire playing and coaching staff, Chapecoense went to the top of the Brazilian first division for the first time in their history.
True, only three rounds have been played. There still are 35 to go. It is all but impossible to see Chapecoense as realistic title challengers. Teams have been in their position in the past after the early rounds and still been relegated -- it happened last year to Santa Cruz of Recife. The campaign may well be long and hard for the small-town club from the south of Brazil. But to have bounced back so emphatically in such a short space of time is nothing less than a magnificent achievement.
There is an easy way to put this into perspective. In the last Premier League season, Chelsea, the team finishing on top, received one and a half times the TV revenue from their league fixtures as Sunderland, the team who finished at the bottom. In Brazil, the gap is much, much wider. In 2016, Chapecoense were the first division club who made the least from TV rights, pulling in 9.7 times less than Rio giants Flamengo, who received the most. For Chapecoense to compete on anything close to even terms with the big players of the Brazilian game is in itself remarkable. To be able to do it after going through such a tragedy and effectively starting from scratch is a feat for Greek gods.
The fact that Chapecoense top the table may shed some light on the incompetence and wastefulness of Brazil's major clubs, who surely should be capable of more with the resources at their disposal. It is worth recalling that, despite a huge financial advantage over their continental rivals, the last Brazilian team to win the Copa Libertadores (South America's Champions League) was Atletico Mineiro in 2013. They scraped their way to the title with a succession of penalty shootouts, and were then horribly exposed in the Club World Cup.
But it also is clear that Chapecoense, in the main, are a team that get the basics right. Their limited budget gives them little margin for error when it comes to signing players and appointing coaches. And coach Vagner Mancini, so far at least, has been an inspired choice to succeed his friend Caio Junior, one of the victims of the crash on Nov. 29.
The latest win, Monday's 2-0 triumph over local rivals Avai, was especially pleasing. True, the opposition were poor -- Avai certainly face a long fight against relegation this season. But the quality of Chapecoense's football, especially in the first half, was eye-catching. A new signing, the left-footed Venezuelan midfielder Luis Manuel Seijas, has slotted straight in. His capacity to pass the ball brought calm and precision to a side built for quick attacks, and the team charged forward in a succession of three- and four-man combinations.
The club could be sitting even prettier were it not for an uncharacteristic administrative error. In their debut campaign in the Libertadores, they won a famous victory away to Lanus of Argentina. But they should not have selected gangling defender Luiz Otavio, who should have been serving a suspension. The situation is confused, and the authorities may have sent the confirmation of the suspension to the wrong e-mail. But Chapecoense were told before the game that Luiz Otavio could not play. Vagner Mancini was about to replace him, but it appears that the club directors over-ruled him. Not only did Luiz Otavio play, he scored the winning goal. Chapecoense were stripped of the points they won that night, which turned out to be the difference between qualification to the last 16 and group phase elimination.
The club have launched an appeal. But the chances of success are not good. The way they are going in the league, though, Chapecoense have earned the right to dream of finishing high enough to qualify for next year's edition of the Libertadores.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.