Copa Sudamericana: the final where soccer was the least of it

Medellín stadium pays emotional tribute to the Brazilian players who died in this week’s accident

Two fans hug during a tribute to ChapecoenseVideo: BUDA MENDES / ATLAS
Sally Palomino

Even before anyone knew who would play the final of the Copa Sudamericana, he would routinely get asked about the green shirt he liked to wear. And he always explained that it was the shirt of the soccer team from Chapecó, the town in southern Brazil where he spent most of his life, where his friends live, and where he himself became a chapecoense. Vagner Lopes Da Silva, 35, had always been proud to wear his team’s colors in Medellín, the Colombian city where he arrived three years ago to study a PhD at Antioquia University.

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Atlético Nacional-Chapecoense: la final en la que el fútbol era lo de menos

And when he found out that his team would be playing right across from his new home, he got really excited. Now, he can barely hold back the tears.

On Tuesday, when he turned on his cellphone, he saw several messages from friends, but that was to be expected on a match day.

“They were saying something about an accident. I didn’t understand, until I turned on the TV,” he explains before heading out to Atanasio Girardot Stadium, where he was going to be the translator for the Brazil delegation that landed in Colombia following the air crash.

“This is huge. Chapecó is sad,” are the only words that he manages to get out. When he heard that translators were needed, he immediately volunteered. He says it is a way to “reduce the sadness.”

It is a gesture that brings honor to this city of Medellín, and makes the ‘verdolagas’ even greater

José Serra, Brazilian foreign minister

Juan Urrego, 21, is another volunteer translator and fan of Atlético Nacional. Putting their sports rivalry to one side, both went to the stadium to help the Brazilian families arriving to claim back the bodies of their loved ones.

It was an early sign of the mood that would prevail later that evening. For the first time, Atanasio became everybody’s home. Although no football was played at all, the stadium, which can seat 50,000 fans, had to close its doors over an hour ahead of schedule due to the rivers of people who showed up to pay tribute to the dead players. And there they remained, outside the gates, demonstrating that the greatness of soccer can overpower any team rivalry.

“The shield, the game, the cup. All that falls into the background when you are talking about lives,” said Carlos Arbeláez, 25, a fan of Atlético Nacional who for the first time found himself cheering another team on.

Children release balloons during the tribute to Chapecoense at Atanasio Girardot stadium in Medellín.
Children release balloons during the tribute to Chapecoense at Atanasio Girardot stadium in Medellín.Fernando Vergara (AP)

And this time, he was wearing white, just like most other spectators at the tribute to Chapecoense organized by the city of Medellín and the Nacional team.

¡Eh oh eh oh Chapecó!” he cried out, waving a bouquet that he would later hurl onto the field as part of a floral tribute to the dead players.

Sitting near him, Nubia Marín, 53, dried her tears.

“This is a big blow,” she says. “I put myself in their mothers’ place. How they must be suffering.”

Her grandson Bryan will be soon traveling to the United States to train with a team there. “When I saw the news, I thought about my boy. It’s very sad.”

The tribute, a little over an hour long, was attended by Brazilian and Colombian authorities, as well as the Atlético Nacional team. The most emotional speech was delivered by Brazilian Foreign Minister José Serra, who praised Atlético fans for asking that the Sudamericana title be automatically awarded to Chapecoense.

“It is a gesture that brings honor to this city of Medellín, and makes the verdolagas even greater,” he said, using the popular term for Atlético Nacional players.

While helicopters hovered overhead, the crowd broke out in applause for the teamwork that managed to rescue six people from the wreckage and take all the bodies to the morgue for identification. And Atlético Nacional pledged to keep defending its green-and-white colors – incidentally, the same as Chapecoense’s. For one night, the rivals merged into a single team.

English version by Susana Urra.

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