Brazilian Soccer Team Returns To The Field After Deadly Airplane Crash
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
It's been nearly two months since a plane crash killed almost an entire soccer team in Brazil. The team's home city of Chapeco has been trying to rebuild, and so has the team. In December, to honor the dead, fans gathered in the stadium, which was filled with coffins. Yesterday they were back again, this time to see the team's first game since the disaster.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Nineteen players were killed in the crash. Today their fans are introduced to the new team. There are tears. The stadium's decorated with tiny paper birds in remembrance of the tragedy and big signs thanking the world for its support. For this small city in south Brazil, this day is about renewal.
There's a big welcome for the families of the dead when they walk onto the field, and also when the reserve goalkeeper arrives in a wheelchair because of his injuries in the crash. There are fireworks when the team is officially awarded the trophy for the big South American competition that, though underdogs, they had hoped to win on the field. They were awarded it after the tragedy in honor of the dead. The crash happened when they were on their way to the finals in Colombia. Radio commentator Rafael Henzel is the only journalist who survived the disaster. Today he's back behind the microphone for the first time.
This is a cafe close to the stadium. The Chapecoense players often came here for breakfast and coffee. Marcio Cecon, an accountant and a lifelong fan, saw them here all the time.
MARCIO CECON: (Through interpreter) They were always very nice. They took photos with us and chatted, so we felt close to them.
REEVES: When the tragedy happened, this city was engulfed by a massive silence, says Cecon. Bruna de Lima, a shop assistant, is a die-hard fan who goes to every game. They say here that this is a city in the countryside that's all about family, church and football, as they call it here. Today, like many, de Lima's wearing the green team shirt honoring her club. She can't stop thinking about the air crash.
BRUNA DE LIMA: (Through interpreter) I do feel angry.
REEVES: The plane plowed into a mountainside in the Andes because it ran out of fuel. Since that day, November the 28, de Lima's been struggling.
DE LIMA: (Through interpreter) The first month was really sad. I cried a lot and couldn't work.
REEVES: The game kicks off under sunny skies just before quarter to 5. Life begins again for Chapecoense. The crowd finds its voice, especially when Chapecoense scores.
REEVES: Soon it sounds like every other crowd in this soccer-addicted land. At the 71st minute, the game stops to remember the 71 victims of the air crash - players, club officials, journalists. The players on the field stand and applaud. This game is what they call in soccer a friendly against Brazil's league champions, Palmeiras. For the record, it ends 2-2. Somehow, radio commentator and crash survivor Rafael Henzel makes it to the final whistle.
RAFAEL HENZEL: (Through interpreter) It was a tough day, seeing people and relatives crying. I know the pain doesn't go away.
REEVES: Henzel says he also felt joy. This is the first match of the club's new life - and of his, too, he says. In a bar where the fans go to drink after the game, the new team gets good reviews.
PAULO FEIJO: (Through interpreter) We are on the right way. We built our team quite quickly, so it seems that it's going to get good.
REEVES: They're on their way, says Paulo Feijo. So are their fans. So is this city.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, Chapeco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.