Chapecoense Was Gaining Respect in Brazil Before Plane Crash

Chapecoense reached Brazil's first division in 2014 and was in ninth place ahead of this weekend's last round of games

The Brazilian soccer team aboard the plane that crashed in Colombia was gaining respect and support from across Brazil even though it was a small club with a short history.

Chapecoense, founded in 1973, was preparing to play in the Copa Sudamericana final, South America's second biggest club competition after the Copa Libertadores. The team was flying to Medellin to face Atletico Nacional on Wednesday in the first leg of the final.

Members of the Chapecoense team were among the 81 people on board the chartered aircraft that crashed on its way to Medellin's international airport. Colombian police said there were some survivors.

"This is a very, very sad day for football," FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in a statement. "At this difficult time our thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends. FIFA would like to extend its most heartfelt condolences to the fans of Chapecoense, the football community and media organizations concerned in Brazil."

Chapecoense reached Brazil's first division in 2014 and was in ninth place ahead of this weekend's last round of games. On its way to the continental final, the team known as Chape beat major clubs such as Argentina's San Lorenzo and Independiente.

Chape strikers Bruno Rangel and Kempes, both 34 years old, are among the top scorers in the Brazilian league, with 10 and nine goals, respectively. One of the team's top players is 35-year-old midfielder Cleber Santana, who played for Atletico Madrid from 2007-10.

Another team leader was defender Helio Hermito Zampier Neto — commonly known as Net.

Among the passengers on the flight was Mario Sergio Pontes de Paiva, a former soccer player who worked as commentator for Fox Sports.

Known as Mario Sergio, he played briefly for Brazil's national team in the early 1980s and had a long career as a midfielder and coach with many Brazilian clubs. He last coached Brazilian club Internacional in 2009 and Ceara in 2010.

In the wake of the crash, the Brazilian Football Confederation called off the Brazilian Cup final between Gremio and Atletico Mineiro, which set for Wednesday. A new date has not been set.

Chapecoense is based in Chapeco, a city of about 200,000 that is known for its poultry industry and is located about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Rio de Janeiro.

The club, which doesn't have any players in Brazil's national team or in the under-20 team, plays its home matches at the 22,000-seat Arena Conda. But it had been scheduled to play the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final at the Couto Pereira Stadium, a 40,000-seat venue in Curitiba, a city 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Chapeco.

A group of rival fans, however, became so impressed with Chapecoense's amazing run in the competition that they started a campaign on social media to move the final to the iconic Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

Chape had its best season ever in 2016, earning 52 points from 37 matches. On Sunday, the team lost at Palmeiras 1-0, a result which clinched the Brazilian league title for the host team.

The team was due to host fourth-place Atletico Mineiro at the Arena Conda on Sunday and then face Atletico Nacional in the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final on Tuesday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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