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Chapecoense's dignified fight against relegation, in the shadow of disaster, is as admirable as their rise

Marcio Araujo looks on during Chapecoense's Serie A match against Botafogo.
Three years after their air disaster, Chapecoense are on the brink of relegation.

Chapecoense are sipping at the last-chance saloon on Wednesday.

With 10 rounds to go in the Brazilian championship, they are deep in relegation danger. Last week, goalkeeper Joao Ricardo left the field declaring that the "Chapecoense supporters will have to get used to the idea of playing in the second division." At the weekend, Marquinhos Santos, their third coach of the campaign, admitted that "we can't try to deceive our fans. We have to be realistic. The situation is very difficult, but at least the team is making progress."

In 28 matches they have only won three times, and are without a win in 13 games. To avoid the drop, they have to make up a margin of 12 points on the first team out of the relegation zone -- Fluminense of Rio. That margin could have been two points smaller. The teams met on Saturday, when Chapecoense took the lead in the Maracana but had to settle for a 1-1 draw.

According to the mathematicians, the probability of relegation is 99 percent. On Wednesday they are away to Atletico Mineiro, who started the season strong but are dropping fast. Atletico's probability of relegation is calculated at 3 percent. This, then, is a must-win game for the visitors. Chapecoense need to pick up the points to improve their chances, and bring Atletico deeper into the dogfight.

Barring an extraordinary turn of events, then, Chapecoense are on their way to the second division. This will be a first. The club have never suffered a relegation before. In remarkable time, they rose through the Brazilian pyramid, making it into the national fourth division and then climbing to the top.

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Some might see relegation as a huge blow. Chapecoense, though, are well placed to recognise the difference between a so-called sporting tragedy and the real thing.

This, of course, is the club that came to global attention almost three years ago, when they suffered an air disaster. On Nov. 28, 2016, they were on their way to Medellin to dispute the final of the Copa Sudamericana when the plane went down, with the loss of 71 lives, including almost all of the club's playing and coaching staff.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the idea was floated that Chapecoense should be protected from relegation for a three-year period, to give them time to rebuild. It was quickly rejected by a club determined to stand on its own merits.

Instead, other clubs helped out by loaning them players. And the emotions engendered by the tragedy were channeled into the quest of ensuring that the club avoided relegation in 2017. It may be seen as glib or facile, but in truth it was deeply human and entirely laudable. One way to honour the memory of those who perished was to keep the club's flag flying high.

Expectations were not just met, they were exceeded. Chapecoense finished eighth in the 20-team league, a position sufficiently high to make it through to the qualifying rounds of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League.

But it was very hard to see how this could be sustained. The players on loan returned to their original clubs, other players came and went -- the turnover of Brazilian football is notoriously high -- weakening the ties with the past, and the emotional force that propelled the club through 2017 inevitably diminished. In 2018 they finished 14th, just two points above the relegation zone.

The signs were clear: the 2019 campaign was obviously going to be a struggle.

The town of Chapeco, in the southern state of Santa Catarina, has a population of just 220,000. There are plenty of Brazilian cities many times bigger who are unable to sustain a first-division football club.

In this context, the rise of Chapecoense was truly miraculous. In less than a decade they climbed the pyramid of Brazilian football, and were about to be the first club from the country to take part in a continental final for three and a half years when disaster struck.

But, in the way they have continued to compete with dignity, what Chapecoense have done in the three years since the tragedy remains an example of determined overachievement.

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