In a country of soccer heroes, Chapecoense was a team of unlikely upstarts.
The club, from the tiny agro-industrial city of Chapeco in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, was playing in the fourth division — the equivalent of baseball’s low minor leagues — less than a decade ago. But this year it had a breakthrough.
Despite finishing 14th in Brazil’s top league, the Serie A, in 2015, Chapecoense had inexplicably made it to the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-biggest club tournament.
It was on its way to Colombia for the first leg of the two-match final with famed Atletico Nacional when its charter flight crashed outside Medellin on Monday night, killing at least 75 of the 81 people on board.
Three members of the team — defenders Alan Ruschel and Helio “Neto” Zampier and backup goalkeeper Jakson Follman — were among the survivors. All three were hospitalized late Tuesday.
“The dream is over,” Plinio David de Nes Filho, chairman of the club’s board, told Brazil’s TV Globo.
Video posted to the team’s website Monday showed jubilant players in the airport, waiting to board their four-engine British Aerospace 146 jet. Hours later, 19 of the 22 players were dead.
Reaction from around the soccer world was widespread. Players with Spain’s Real Madrid gathered, head down, for a moment of silence before training Tuesday.
World Cup legend Pele was among those who shared his thoughts on Twitter. “Brazilian football is in mourning,” he wrote. “It is such a tragic loss. My sincere condolences to the families of the deceased. Rest in peace.”
Added Neymar, captain of Brazil’s national team: “Today the world mourns, but the sky is happy to receive Champions.”
And in Paris, a city that knows about soccer tragedies, the Eiffel Tower was bathed in green and white, Chapecoense’s colors.
Some in the Brazilian media had dubbed Chap-ecoense “South America’s Cinderella,” so unlikely was its run to the Sudamericana final.
Just three years ago the team had won its way back into Brazil’s top league for the first time in 35 years. But it was often huddled in the middle of the pack, lacking the talent and the resources to regularly compete with the larger, richer teams in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It was a fairy tale to believe Chapecoense could make the kind of run unheralded Leicester City made last season, when it defied 5,000-to-1 odds to win the English Premier League title.
Yet this fall that fairy tale appeared to be coming true.
After narrowly qualifying for the Copa Sudamericana, an intercontinental club competition similar to Europe’s Europa League, Chapecoense beat some of the continent’s best teams, albeit narrowly, to reach the tournament championship.
It downed Argentina’s Independiente on penalty kicks, rallied to beat Colombia’s Junior on aggregate goals, then eliminated Argentina’s San Lorenzo — which counts Pope Francis among its most loyal supporters — on away goals to reach the two-game final against Atletico, a 15-time Colombian champion.
The success was so unexpected the second leg of the two-game playoff, a home match for Chapecoense, was to be played 250 miles away because Chapecoense’s regular stadium, Arena Conda, was too small to host such a game. On Tuesday, thousands of fans gathered at the stadium to mourn.
After Monday’s crash, the competition Chap-ecoense dreamed of playing in was canceled. But the trophy will be headed back to Chapeco nonetheless: Atletico Nacional asked tournament organizers to declare the Brazilian team the champions.