After rebuilding, Chapecoense finally meet Atletico Nacional in Medellin
Chapecoense, the Brazilian club that suffered the air disaster at the end of November, had a reason to smile on Sunday, when their rebuilt team landed the local title. For the sixth time, and the second year in succession, they are champions of Santa Catarina, one of the 27 states that make up this giant country.
It was an emotional celebration, with coach Vagner Mancini and his players paying tribute to those who died over five months ago. Being champions of their southern state is evidence that the restructuring job is on schedule. But essentially, it is nothing more than preseason. The real stuff starts now.
This weekend the national Brazilian Championship kicks off. Chapecoense's main aim, their over-riding objective in the rebuilding process, is to retain their first-division status. Less than a decade ago, the team from the small town of Chapeco were not even part of Brazil's four national divisions. Then, with a model based on getting the basics right, they climbed all the way from the fourth to the first division in six years. Since 2014, they have established themselves as a competitive top-flight team, a magnificent achievement that will be all the more sensational if they can keep it up despite losing almost all of their playing and coaching staff in the air crash.
Chapecoense's league campaign could hardly have a harder start. On Saturday, they are away to Corinthians, the Sao Paulo giants who are on a high after claiming their own state title. Soon after the air disaster, the idea was floated that Chapecoense should be protected from relegation for three years, allowing them to rebuild in relative tranquility. The club themselves would not hear of it. They wanted no such special dispensation and were determined to stand or fall by their own merits. The 38 rounds of the league promise to be a tough battle that will provide the ultimate test of the club's capacity to bounce back.
And either side of that opening league fixture, Chapecoense have the glamour of international commitments.
Next week comes the crunch game of their debut campaign in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. With just four points from four games they are struggling -- which was only to be expected. Anything they get from this first adventure is a bonus. And in order for the adventure to be prolonged, they must get something from their visit to Lanus, an attractive Argentine side who beat them 3-1 in Brazil in March. Chapecoense will expect to win their final group match, at home to Zulia of Venezuela a week later. But without a win in Argentina in theoretically their most difficult group game, any last-day heroics may not count for much.
Before that, though, comes another chance to win a title, in circumstances that are bound to be extremely touching. The air crash, of course, happened when Chapecoense were approaching Medellin airport in Colombia, where they were to face Atletico Nacional in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent.
The response of the Colombian club to the tragedy was heartfelt and sincere. At the hour when the game was to have been played they threw open the doors of the stadium, and a packed crowd took part in a beautiful memorial service. And Atletico Nacional insisted that the Sudamericana title be awarded to Chapecoense in tribute to those who lost their lives.
As champions, Chapecoense get to play the two-legged Recopa -- a duel between the winners of the Sudamericana and the Libertadores -- who by happy coincidence are their new friends, Atletico Nacional. In Chapeco last month, the Brazilian side came out 2-1 on top in the first leg. On Wednesday, the clubs will finally meet in Medellin.
The match takes place on Chapecoense's 44th birthday. The celebration should belong to all. The meeting commemorates those who died and the international friendships forged through football. And with both sides wanting to claim the Recopa title, there is also the prospect of an enthralling 90 minutes in Medellin.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.