Chapecoense begin their rebuild with new players, the whole world watching
In a mission that is both daunting and inspiring, Chapecoense have begun the task of rebuilding their team.
The modest Brazilian club lost almost their entire squad in a tragic plane crash at the end of November; in addition to 19 players, the club also lost its coaching staff and many of its directors.
On Friday, new coach Vagner Mancini presented his squad to the press.
The 29 players include 15 hurriedly brought in from other clubs, 10 promoted from Chapecoense's youth ranks and four players from last year's squad -- three who were fortunate enough to miss the fatal flight and Neto, the centre-back who miraculously survived and who is recuperating. For the time being, at least, he's there as a symbol of resurgence rather than as a playing option.
Mancini must quickly forge this new group into a viable team. The competitive matches start at the end of the month -- first, they have a friendly against defending champions Palmeiras -- though thankfully, he can use the local championship of the southern state of Santa Catarina as something approximating a glorified training exercise. But the serious stuff is coming.
At the start of March, Chapecoense begin their debut campaign in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, with an evocative, long trip north to face Zulia in Maracaibo, Venezuela. And then in May the Brazilian first division kicks off, the competition that the club will probably view as its top priority. Anything they get from the Libertadores is a bonus, but in the domestic league they will surely be focused on avoiding any possibility of relegation. The club previously rejected any suggestion that their first division status be protected and guaranteed for three years to give them time to rebuild after the air crash.
It was a noble gesture typical of a club that's made extraordinary progress in a short space of time. A decade ago, Chapecoense didn't even figure in Brazil's four national divisions. The team that perished were on their way to contest the final of the Copa Sudamericana -- not since 2013 had a Brazilian club made it through to a continental final. The secret lay in attention to the basics: sound administration and un-flashy hard work. The model remains.
"We are maintaining the principles that have guided our club in recent years," says president Plinio David de Nes, "with determined and committed players."
The model stays the same but the context has changed. A modest club from a small town, Chapecoense's rise did not attract great attention. They were even overshadowed as they made their way to the final of the Sudamericana: The dates and hours of their matches coincided with big games in the closing stages of the domestic Brazilian Cup, which involved more traditional clubs with far greater followings. It was almost as if Chapecoense rose without trace, something that appeared to suit the club just fine.
Such anonymity is no longer possible. The club are now known all over the world. There will be global attention on everything that happens to them. Chapecoense have been grateful for the goodwill they have received from all over the planet, but it means that they now carry the burden of having to rebuild in the spotlight.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.