At 35, Santana was the captain of a modest Brazilian team that was about to play the biggest game in its history.
The Chapecoense squad was flying to Colombia to play the first match of the Copa Sudamericana final on Wednesday, against Medellín’s Atlético Nacional.
“Cléber was a very shy, religious young man. He was always walking around with rosaries. He learned Spanish really fast,” recalls a former Atlético Madrid employee who used to see him daily when he was training with the Spanish team.
Santana used to arrive early for training at the pitch in Cerro del Espino, in the Madrid suburb of Majahadonda, and liked to have breakfast at a nearby Argentinean bakery.
He was a very approachable, respectful young man, very laid back
Jesús García Pitarch, ex Atlético Madrid sporting director
“I knew him at [Brazilian team] Santos and we decided to sign him because we were looking for a midfielder with his characteristics,” recalls Jesús García Pitarch, a former player who was Atlético’s sporting director between 2006 and 2011.
Hired under the direction of García Pitarch, Cléber Santana arrived at Atlético de Madrid in July 2007, after leaving Santos. But his first season with the Madrid team did not go as well as expected.
“He was always really cold. Club people who went to his house said that he always had the heating on at full blast,” he adds.
The Madrid club paid out 50% of his transfer, around €2 million, while the other half was kept in an investment fund controlled by Brazilian agent Juan Figer.
“I am respectful because there are great players in Atlético, but I will fight to carve out a position,” said Santana at his own presentation in Vicente Calderón stadium.
After an unsuccessful first year, Santana was ceded to Mallorca, where he met expectations, playing 40 games and scoring six goals, two of which are still fresh in many Mallorca fans’ memories.
“After that great season we got him back, but he decided to leave because his family was not adapting to Madrid,” recalls García Pitarch. “He was a very approachable, respectful young man, very laid back. Perhaps he lacked that little bit of ambition to be more competitive, because he certainly had the conditions for it.”
Santana was sold to Sao Paulo, but underperformed there and began moving from team to team: Flamengo, Avai, Criucima, and finally Chapecoense.
Founded in 1973, Chapecoense has been in Brazil’s top fight for four years, and was about to play in the final of Copa Sudamericana against Nacional de Medellín.
“I saw them play 15 days ago,” recalls García Pitarch. “They seemed really solid with Cléber at the helm.”
English version by Susana Urra.