April 20, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

A most tragic fairy tale

Brazil's Chapecoense football team in a 2016 group shot.
By Dino Quin*
Published: 2016-12-13

ir crashes and football have a uniquely painful relationship. Tragedy has twice befallen Europe's brightest and strongest teams since the end of World War II. In 1949, a plane crash wiped out Torino FC's "Grande Torino" squad. A decade later, in 1958, eight members of the legendary Manchester United team known as "Busby Babes" — coached by manager Matt Busby — perished in a Munich runway crash. Until their ill-fated flights, both teams had dominated their leagues as well as their nations' collective imagination.

Manchester United has since become one of the world's biggest club teams with the Munich tragedy remaining a central reference point in team history. At the same time, the tragedy also helped generate a groundswell of support that ultimately helped lift the club to greater heights.

The 1958 Munich crash claimed eight of "Busbies Babes."

The Turin crash was more devastating. A commercial flight carrying the club — Italy's best —from Lisbon to Turin slammed into the Superga basilica on a hill outside the fogged-in city, killing all 31 people aboard. Torino FC has since had bursts of success but never matched the glory years in which it was considered superior to all-conquering city rivals Juventus. The Superga disaster retains spiritual meaning in the everyday narrative of the club and its supporters.

South America has its own dark legacy. In 1969, The Strongest, among Bolivia's oldest club teams, lost 20 players to a commercial crash near hilly Viloco. Allianza Lima, Peru's most decorated club, perished in a 1987 charter flight disaster.

On Nov. 28 came the turn of Brazilian club Chapecoense. A charter flight carrying players and staff to the first leg of the team's Copa Sudamericana final date with Colombia's Atlético Nacional crashed outside of Medellin. Three players survived, but 19 did not. In all, 71 people died.

The event was heavily covered internationally and dominated social media. The way a fairytale-in-the-making had been transformed into a calamity made the story all the more compelling.

Unlike the Torino and Manchester United teams, Chapecoense — founded in 1973 — was more of a Cinderella story. Chapecoense, "Chape" to its fans graduated to the country's top tier national league, Serie A, in 2014 and was all but unknown outside Brazil.

The 1949 Superga disaster wiped out a team known as il Grande Torino.

But top tier play made the team eligible to compete for the 18-team Copa Sudamericana. Beginning in August, Chapacoense acquired a taste for upsets, defeating Argentine giants Independiente and San Lorenzo to earn an improbable berth in the home-and-away final. Now, the team is far more famous than it would have been by winning the trophy on the field against Atlético.

But about the future of the modestly funded club? What happens after the mourning wears off and the international spotlight shifts elsewhere? Manchester United and Torino were elite teams in financially affluent countries.

Despite futebol's central role in Brazilian society, the financial and administrative health of the sport has deteriorated badly over the last five years. Though Brazil has the world's ninth largest economy, the country is in steep decline.

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