April 20, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

A most tragic fairy tale

By Dino Quin*
Published: 2016-12-13

Brazilian clubs have historically relied heavily on selling promising stars to Europe's rich clubs to cultivate revenue. But with the local economy drying up and the number of moneyed foreign leagues — in places like Ukraine and China — increasing, Brazilian youngsters are leaving earlier and for less money. With a poorer product on display, Serie A attendance has shriveled to less than 16,000 per game, 5,000 less than the U.S. Major League Soccer average.

Chapecoense is essentially a provincial club that represents the city of Chapecó, population 209,000. It is located inland in the westernmost part of the state of Santa Caterina, more than 600 kilometers from the well-known coastal resort of Florianopolis.

Given Brazil's immense geography, football remains in most respects a provincial pursuit. The national league was created in 1959 thanks to advances in civil aviation. Clubs previously competed in statewide competitions, and still do so alongside national matches. Chape are five-time winners of the Campeonato Catarinense (they won again in 2016), the annual tournament comprised of Santa Caterina's clubs.

Despite the team's regional success and rapid continental ascent, this season's home games averaged a mere 7,000 fans at their 22,000-capacity Arena Conda. The club counted an official membership base of 9,000 on the eve of a continental final. Chape has never had a tradition of grooming (let alone possessing) the kind of talent that can command significant overseas revenues. The legendary 2016 team will be remembered on the field as a hard-working unit of well-coached veterans.

While typical revenue streams may offer scant hope of rebuilding, there is some hope for the future. The South American football federation CONMEBOL, acting on a request from Atlético Nacional, officially awarded the Copa Sudamericana title to Chape, guaranteeing about $5 million through a combination of prize money and a promise of participation in continental competition next season.

While watching a recent marquee Premier League matchup — Leicester City vs. Manchester City — I saw the message #ForçaChape scroll across the field-side electronic board at Leicester's King Power stadium. As remote as Chapecó may be geographically, football can make the world incredibly small.

Players with millions of social media followers have issued supportive messages. Many have gone further, offering financial donations and pledges to join the team as it rebuilds.

Everyday people have also contributed, with reports that club membership rose by 6,000 in the week following the catastrophe, with another 50,000 applications still to be processed. Much more than mere "likes" or retweets, these are financial commitments of several hundred dollars apiece over the next year.

While it's easy to be cynical about the outpouring of support — clubs, players, and sponsors certainly have their own PR agendas — it is undeniable that technological tools now exist to ensure that more chapters are written in Chapecoense's remarkable story.

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