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Brazilian tragedy unites the soccer world in sorrow

There was supposed to be a soccer game in Medellin, Colombia, last Wednesday. Instead Atletico Nacional and thousands of its fans filed into a packed stadium to pay homage to the Brazilian club they were scheduled to play.

Before last week, few people outside Brazil knew much about Chapecoense, a hard-luck team of modest means and more modest talent. From the tiny town of Chapeco, in the southern state of Santa Catalina, the club had spent most of its existence in the lower tiers of Brazilian soccer, just struggling to survive.

But everything seemed to be come together this year. Chapecoense reached the finals of South America’s second-biggest club tournament, the Copa Sudamericana, whose two-leg playoff was to begin in Medellin. The team never made it there, though. Its charter flight crashed into a mountainside 10 miles from the airport late Monday, killing 71 of the 77 people on board.

At times the world’s most popular sport can seem unwieldy and uncaring. Beset by corruption and fraud, plagued by match-fixing scandals and focused more on sponsorship dollars and broadcast fees than the game itself, soccer’s caretakers rarely exhibit the heart and passion that drew so many to it in the first place.

Then something like Chapecoense happens and overnight the game becomes about 11 players and a ball again, with unity replacing rivalry.

Across the world, at games involving superclubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germaine, teammates grasped hands and observed moments of silence for players most had never heard of. The night after the crash, PSG’s Edinson Cavani scored a goal and ripped off his jersey to reveal a white T-shirt with a hand-drawn Chapecoense logo before pointing to the sky with both hands.

The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the archway spanning London’s Wembley Stadium were all bathed in Chape green and white. Teams in Argentina and France sewed Chapecoense logos onto their uniforms, and video game maker EA Sports altered its popular FIFA 17 game to give all ultimate team players the Brazilian club’s kit and badge.

In Brazil, the 19 other Serie A teams asked the league to make Chapecoense exempt from relegation for the next three seasons, a concession that could cost some clubs hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

No one organized any of that, it just happened — just as the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan became ubiquitous after the terror attacks on the Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo and rainbow flags sprouted everywhere after the deadly attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

So it meant something when Paraguay’s Club Libertad offered to send its entire first team to play for Chapecoense in its regular season finale next Sunday, replacing the 19 players killed in Monday’s crash. It meant something when, hours after the crash, Brazilians flocked to stores to snap up the iconic Chape jersey.

“Everybody’s now supporting that club,” said Beto dos Santos, a youth coach with FC Los Angeles who played for first-division clubs in Brazil and Mexico. “It’s just amazing.”

The bodies of the victims were returned to Chapeco on Saturday, where thousands – including Brazilian President Michel Temer – gathered in heavy rain at the city’s stadium for a memorial. In their own tributes, teams around the world wore black armbands in their Saturday matches.

Perhaps it’s because the underdog team’s big dreams were finally being realized, giving the tragedy added poignancy. Or maybe it’s because the team came from Brazil, where soccer is less a sport and more a religion, with over 1,000 Brazilian players fanning out to leagues around the globe to spread the faith.

No other country exports nearly that many of its native sons, making it almost impossible to find a top team or player anywhere who hasn’t played with or against a Brazilian. That made Brazil’s pain soccer’s heartache.

The most moving shows of grief were the dual tributes held simultaneously in Medellin and Chapeco, Chapecoense’s tiny hometown about 550 miles south of Sao Paulo.

In Medellin, 45,000 fans packed Atanasio Girardot Stadium, site of Wednesday’s scheduled game, while more than twice that many filled the surrounding streets. Some lit white candles or carried white flowers; many cried, others prayed. Seventy-one white doves were released, one for each crash victim. A group of children released white balloons.

“I came here tonight because this is an act of solidarity with the people of Brazil,” Colombian fan Dario Isasa told Reuters. “But not just that, this is also about solidarity across the world of football with those who died in that plane crash.”

“Tonight,” added Lidia Alzate “we’re all Chapecoense fans.”

At what would have been kickoff time, the faces and names of those who died were shown on the screen. Viewers who turned to Fox Sports to see the game were instead greeted by a black screen with the message “90 minutes of silence.”

“What was supposed to be celebration has turned into a tragedy,” Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said. A day earlier his city’s team, which was supposed to have played the Brazilian club, asked that Chapecoense be declared the Copa Sudamericana champion, refusing $2 million in prize money.

Thousands of miles away in Chapeco, where schools and business were closed and Christmas celebrations canceled, tens of thousands paraded through city streets to the town’s stadium for a second straight night. There they huddled in silent vigil, under jackets and blankets, holding glowing cellphones aloft in the darkened grandstands. When a brief video of the Colombian team’s supporters singing a club anthem was broadcast on a stadium scoreboard, the Brazilians joined in.

The two clubs never met on the field, yet fans in both cities found themselves forever linked in tragedy.

“They never tired of climbing,” one young boy wrote of his heroes “and now they’re in heaven.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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