First place, Brazilian Serie A
By Daniel Rubens
As we have done in past summers in this section, rather than focusing on a European team, we’ll be journeying around the world over the next few months to look at some sides making waves across the globe. First up is a team that’s been discussed extensively over the past six months for the worst reasons. But after the tragic end to last season, Chapecoense are off to a fantastic start in 2017 as the side rises like a Phoenix.
The backstory of Chapecoense — often shortened to ACF and nicknamed Verdao, or Big Green, in reference to their shirt color — is one that consists mostly of mediocrity. The club was founded in 1973 as the merger of the two sides, Atletico Chapecoense and Independiente, who called the city of Chapeco in the Southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina home. By 1977, the club won its first trophy, the Santa Catarina State Championship, beating one of its rivals, Avai, 1-0 in the final.
The next season, Chape had modest success in their first top-flight season, finishing in the middle of the standings of the Brazilian Championship First Division, which then consisted of almost a hundred teams. However, a year later, Chape finished second from bottom among the 94 sides that participated and were relegated.
This began a long period of wandering the lower leagues of Brazilian football. They would win a few more state titles over the ensuing three decades, but ACF never was able to experience real national success. That began to change in 2009 when the club finished third in the fourth tier to earn a promotion that started a stunning and rapid rise.
Chapecoense would continue to progress upwards in phenomenal fashion. It took three tries to get promoted out of the Serie C, but when it did happen in 2012, the Verdao only needed one shot at the Serie B. The side finished second in the 2013 second division table and returned to the Brasilierao in 2014 for the first time since 1979.
Their first season back in the top flight wasn’t an easy one, but under manager Celso Rodrigues, Chape did enough to finish 15th and stave off the drop. That earned them a first-ever continental berth as, in 2015, ACF participated in the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s Europa League equivalent. That league
That carried over into 2016, as Chape scored 15 more goals than they did the season before in the domestic league under another new manager, Caio Junior. The Verdao would place 11th in the final table, but again, the biggest happenings were in the continental competition. By stunning another Argentine giant, San Lorenzo, in the Copa Sudamericana semifinals, Chapecoense earned its first-ever berth in a continental final against Columbia’s biggest club, Atletico Nacional.
Of course, they never played what was scheduled to be a two-legged final. What happened next has been written about time and again over the past months. Chape flew to Medellin on November 28, but just before landing in Colombia, the plane they were traveling on ran out of fuel after its pilot decided to skip a refueling stop. The aircraft crashed into a hillside, killing 71 of the 77 people on board (which included journalists, staff members, coaches, and players). Just three members of the first-team squad who had been on the flight survived (a number of injured players didn’t travel). It was a devastating, back-breaking blow for a club that had taken the road less traveled to get to the big time.
Following the accident, Atletico Nacional requested that CONMEBOL reward the title to Chapecoense, and the federation did so. As condolences of grief and support poured in from around the globe — messages that continue to this day — Chape began the arduous, draining process of recovering from perhaps the worst tragedy involving a sports team in world history.
In preparations for the 2017 season, Chape began building a squad from the pieces left behind. Despite other Brazilian clubs asking the league to exempt the Verdao from relegation for three seasons as they tried to rebuild, Chapecoense decided to reject the offer, instead choosing to build as any other side might. What they did accept was an offer from other clubs to loan players without fees for the season, which has helped Chape bring 19 new players in temporarily. The remainder of the squad built by new manager Vagner Mancini, a friend of the deceased manager Caio Junior, consisted mainly of youth players called up to the senior side and a handful of veterans who came to the side as free transfers in the offseason.
By March, Chape was ready for action, and the first taste of it in 2017 came in the form of the club’s first ever Copa Libertadores appearance as a result of the Verdao being crowned Copa Sudamericana champions. Fittingly, in their first game of the competition, Chape defeated Zulia of Venezuela 2-1. However, there was another sucker-punch waiting as in the fifth game of the group stage, Chapecoense had a fantastic 2-1 win at Argentine side Lanus wiped away and instead changed to a 3-0 win for Lanus due to Chape fielding an ineligible player, who coincidentally would score the winning goal. Reportedly, Chape had gotten word late that the player, Luiz Otavio, was ineligible with a suspension, and Mancini wasn’t going to include him in the squad before being overruled by the club’s directors. The club has filed an appeal, saying that an email informing the club of the suspension had been sent to the wrong address, but the result is unlikely to be overturned. Assuming it doesn’t, it’s a particularly sour note, as the loss pushed Chape to
However, domestically, the situation is shockingly good, granted through just a month of the Brasilierao season. Four games in, Chape are atop the table with three wins — over Palmeiras, Cruzeiro, and their rivals Avai — since the Verdao with a draw against Corinthians, who sit just behind Chape on goal differential. When they beat Avai 2-0 in a game that finished 10-on-10 in the third contest of the season, Chapecoense went to the top of the Serie A table for the first time ever.
There have only been four games played, and Chape aren’t likely to remain at the top of the table for long. After all, the side is made mostly of loanees, youth players, and cast-offs from other clubs, and ACF’s finances pale in comparison to almost every other top-flight side in Brazil. Regardless, though, considering everything that the club has been through in the past year, sitting where they do now is a remarkable achievement in and of itself for Chapecoense. They will be underdogs throughout this season both domestically and continentally, but no club will play with as much support from the footballing world as Chape. And while their rise to prominence may have been interrupted, that doesn’t mean Chapecoense’s story is over.