Along with the simultaneous cheering of the entire stadium, following every name, the speakers blurted:
“No.94 Tiago Vieira”
11 men stood across the field. Some with a hand on the shoulder of the one standing next to him, some on the back, and some with the palm resting on the round crest reading out ACF in the centre, 1973 below it and Associacao Chapecoense De Futebol forming a halo around the two.
11 men, dressed in armours as lush a green as the battleground they had kissed before stepping on to it.
Young Claudio , dressed in the same green, from head to toe, sitting on his father’s shoulders, held a scarf above his head, with his thoughts sewn across it. VAMOS CHAPE.
He had seen it all this season.
He had seen his team beat the heavyweights Independiente on penalties in the round of 16.
“ If he fails to score this, they are going out”, said the commentator.
He closed his eyes. He couldn’t possibly see, but he needed to.
He opened them as soon as his ears heard the ball getting kicked.
Danilo jumped to his right and palmed the ball away.
Claudio erupted along with the rest of the thousands in the stadium. Danilo was on his knees, fists closed and face towards the heavens, till the other 10 joined him, followed by 10 more.
He had seen them overturn a 1-0 deficit by 3 goals to 1 in the next round.
He had seen Ananias scoring a beauty from the edge of the box at Buenos Aires from his television set in the away leg of this round.
He had seen his side climb to the 9th spot in the league in the penultimate game this season, having been promoted just 2 seasons back.
“CHAPECOOOO!” came the chant, honouring the city in which his club was based.
The players took their positions. Danilo, turning his back to the goal, only because he had vowed to protect it. Clapping his gloved palms and shouting out encouragement. Neto and Thiego in front of him, flanked by Dener and Caramelo.
Ananias standing ahead of Caramelo and Tiago ahead of Dener. Gil, Josimar and Santana creating a triangle in the middle, pointing towards their target man Kempes. They were ready. The match kicked off.
90 minutes had passed and it was still 0-0.
“Que pasara si el juego termina asi, papa?” asked Claudio.
(What happens if it ends like this father?)
“Ganaremos, marcamos un gol en su tierra” Said his dad.
(We go through because we scored a goal at their ground)
“VAMOS!”, shouted Claudio, yet again.
Time was almost up, his heartbeat faster than ever. Out of nowhere, came in a shot at their goal. Danilo flied to his right, not letting the net rustle and Neto cleared thereafter.
The whistle blew three times. Longest, the third time. It was over. They were through to the Sudamericana finals.
Sudamericana is the sister competition to Libertadores much like Europa is to the Champions league.
It did not matter to Claudio, his team was going to be champions.
He and his dad slept on the roof more often than not because it was cool outside during the night in that part of Santa Catarina.
He gazed at the stars as his dad told him a piece of history of the Brazilian club every night, till he fell asleep. He told him how they won the state title just 4 years after the club was formed and then 3 times again in 1996, 2007, and 2011. He told him how they gained promotion within 6 seasons in 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014 to reach the premier division from fourth tier. It was his favourite bedtime story.
He was going to have a good night’s sleep.
A few days later, when he wakes up after a similar night, he comes to know that his team would not be playing in the finals. His team would not be playing another football match, ever.
Be it Daniel Jarque, Antonio Puerta, Marc-Vivian Foe, Phil O’Donnell, Emmanuel Ortega, Cristiano Junior or Miklos Feher, it is always tragic to lose a player on the field, in unnatural ways and in unforeseen circumstances. Losing an entire team, be it the all conquering Torino in 1949, the Busby Babes in 1958 or the Chapecos in 2016, is even more heart wrenching.
A team, in the beautiful game, isn’t merely a group of people and professionals playing, it is a family. A family comprised not just of players, but of coaches, training staff, the pitch curator, the janitor, the fans. Every person for whom the name of the club is an eternal love. Unmovable, unshakeable, uninfluenced by glory or failures. Moving together in the same direction, towards a common purpose. Each person playing his/her part like gears of a giant machine. Except this machine has feelings, more than a common man cares to express in his day to day life. The fans in the end are the soul of the club, and the players it’s heart. The rest of the machinery functions effortlessly when these two are in sync. But when the heart stops beating, what can the rest of the body do? It comes to a standstill. The soul is all that remains. With a sole purpose of keeping the dream going, it is the soul which needs to pump life into the very source of vitality.
The loss of an entire team is not just loss of lives. It is the loss of a family, of an embodiment of the club, of its spirit. It is the most merciless end of an era. More than anything, it is a loss for the beautiful game for being the culprit but at the same time being the only way towards abatement of these wounds. Physical wounds which to us might seem to be grave and unfathomable but for those affected and for those who survived, must, by all means, be infinitesimally small compared to the soul shattering emotional storm. Death is the epitome of the fickle nature of life. It’s ability to give and to take. It’s ability to be euphoric and merciless.
Time does not heal, it merely teaches us how to live with the scars. It is upon us, whether we consider them as a weakness or as battle wounds and fight back even harder. To blame the game, or to find solace in it like billions of people around the world do everyday. The present, and the future of the club will be moulded into a form by this tragedy whether or not me and you forget it. It might not be the end of the road but will certainly be a sting in the path. Only this time, they have the entire world to look after them and stand up on their feet, not just to honour those who became immortal, but to sprint towards the pinnacles they set and conquer the sport. Only this time, we all will be paying attention. Football in it’s entirety is a universe. A universe bereft of everyday schemes and ploys, bereft of a cyclical pattern and hinging on uncertainty in it’s most beautiful avatar. A universe governed by the purest of emotions and unadulterated passion. It is, in this universe, that some aim for the sky and some make the sky their kingdom, shining on to the entire world with all their luminosity.
As Claudio lay down on his bed under the sky that night, tears still kissing his cheeks, he asked his father as to where his champions had gone, if he would ever see them again.
His father wiped the tears, stroked his hair, and pointed towards the sky. “Look up there, Claudio” he said,
“Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.”
Some are coronated with medals around their necks, lying in front of the heart, while only a few wear them like a crown. Chapecos, The Busby Babes and The Grande Torino, you will, forever be, in our thoughts. Always remembered, every time the ball rolls on the greens, for there might be many full time whistles, but there will never be a last one.