Chapecoense, Atletico Nacional forge friendship from depths of tragedy
It is of very little consolation, but the death of a team has led to the birth of a moving friendship between the two clubs, which disaster did not allow to meet. Atletico Nacional of Colombia were to have hosted Chapecoense of Brazil last Wednesday in the first leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent.
The Brazilians never made it, their plane having run out of fuel on its approach to the airport in Medellin. The crash claimed the lives of 71 of the 77 people on board, including 19 players and the club's coaching staff.
At the time the game was to have taken place, Nacional opened the doors of their stadium and supporters flocked in their thousands to pay a beautiful tribute to those who had died. Organised at short notice, it was sincere and heartfelt.
The mayor of Chapeco, Luciano Buligon, was moved beyond words. He brought the bodies of the dead back home, where a wake was held in the club's stadium on Saturday; Buligon put on an Atletico Nacional shirt to give his speech.
This friendship between clubs exemplifies the way that the global football community has rallied in response to the tragedy. Last Tuesday morning, the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona were already acknowledging the dreadful event, holding a minute's silence before their training sessions.
And over the weekend there were tributes from all over the world. Argentina's San Lorenzo, eliminated by Chapecoense in the Sudamericana semifinal, took the field for their league game in the green shirts they had swapped with their Brazilian opponents. In Peru, Sporting Cristal played in green rather than their traditional light blue.
Respectful silences were staged all across the globe. Footballers board a lot of planes, so wherever they are from, they can relate to the Chapecoense tragedy. As can the fans; a tragedy of this kind tends to make rival supporters realise how much they have in common. Green banners were seen across the globe.
This year, big derby games in the city of Sao Paulo have been limited to home fans, in a bid to contain violence. On Sunday, though, organised supporter groups from all the city's major clubs met to stage a march in support of Chapecoense and of peace in football.
While rivalries will resume, there seems little doubt that the relationship between Atletico Nacional and Chapecoense will be lasting. On Saturday, the Colombian team beat historic adversaries Millonarios 3-0, with two late goals taking them through to the semifinals of the domestic league. In the dressing room after that game, players chanted the name of Chapecoense.
The Colombian club were also prepared to back up their words of solidarity with actions. In a move started by the players, Atletico Nacional made a formal request for Chapecoense to be declared the Sudamericana champions. On Monday, CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, made the award official.
This is more than a mere gesture, a tribute to the team that was so tragically wiped out. It also gives Chapecoense prize money and qualifies them for next year's version of the Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League. That revenue will be much-needed as they go about the arduous task of trying to rebuild.
Every year there is a home and away meeting of the winners of South America's two continental club competitions, the Libertadores and the Sudamericana. The next edition will, at last, put Chapecoense on the same field as Atletico Nacional. There will not be a dry eye in the house.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.