Chapecoense were the mighty mouse that roared right up to the very end
I had fully expected to wake up Tuesday and write a piece based on Cleber Santana, an elegant midfielder and captain of Chapecoense. He would be key to his team's chances against Atletico Nacional of Colombia in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. In a team largely made up of well-organised, honest triers, Cleber Santana was the class act, a midfielder good enough to spend some time with Atletico Madrid nearly a decade ago. In truth, he was probably a little too languid for top-class European football, but there was no doubting his technique and talent.
Atletico Nacional's setup seemed made for Cleber Santana. The Colombians play with a double act of big, sluggish centre-backs who drop deep to protect their lack of pace. In front of them, a single defensive midfielder has acres to cover. There would be space, I figured, for Cleber Santana to impose his quality on proceedings.
And if goalkeeper Danilo could continue with his heroics; if centre-back William Thiego could again hold the defence together; if the duo of Josimar and Gil could run and mark and harry the Colombians in midfield; if Thiaguinho, Ananias or Lucas Gomes could use their pace down the flanks; if the busy Kempes or the rangy Bruno Rangel could take the chances that came their way, then the fairy tale of modest Chapecoense might add a glorious chapter with the conquest of the Copa Sudamericana, less than a decade after not figuring in any of Brazil's four professional divisions.
But most important of all: There was a hunch that Cleber Santana, at the age of 35, was going to play the game of his life.
But, of course, that never happened. With grim irony, an article on the CONMEBOL website celebrated the extraordinary rise of men from small town Chapeco, under the headline "The adventure of Chapecoense astonishes the continent." And then came the cruellest twist of fate: a sudden, tragic end to the adventure that has astonished not only the continent of South America, but the entire world -- for very different reasons.
Cleber Santana and his Chapecoense teammates flew up toward Medellin full of those childhood dreams that had inspired them to take up football in the first place. To watch the video of them celebrating in the dressing room after winning their Copa Sudamericana semifinal is to witness a group of men who are coming close to reaching professional heaven. As always in football, the glory is both individual and also collective. This group of players had kept upsetting the odds, and they had done it together -- and they were dreaming of doing it again in the final.
Their opponents wore the same coloured shirts. But there was no doubt who was truly green. Atletico Nacional were more than ripe; the reigning champions of South America, soon off to Japan to represent the continent in the Club World Cup. Chapecoense had next-to-no experience at this level of achievement, but they were the mouse that kept on roaring until they were so cruelly silenced by that plane crash on the approach to Medellin.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.