Chapecoense memorial a fittingly imperfect testament to humanity
It was always going to be emotional. Two months after the tragic plane crash that robbed 71 people of their lives and a football club of their happy anonymity, Brazil welcomed Colombia to Rio de Janeiro for a meeting that was not about the match.
The marketing men had dubbed it "The Game of Friendship," but the feelings ran deeper than that. In the first instance, it was a chance to pay tribute to the fallen -- to the players, officials and journalists who boarded LaMia Flight 2933 and never returned home. Banners were raised in their honour, and tears were shed.
The three members of the Chapecoense squad who survived the crash were given an ovation when they were presented to the crowd before kickoff, but they will never forget that they are the lucky ones. "We are representing those who did not make it," left-back Alan Ruschel said.
Beyond that, this was an opportunity for Brazil to say thank you to Colombia. Footballing relations between the two countries have not always been the warmest, but the humanity with which the Colombian people reacted to November's devastating events struck a real chord among their southeastern neighbours.
Atletico Nacional's insistence that the Copa Sudamericana title be awarded to Chapecoense was perhaps the most visible gesture of solidarity and was rightly lauded by fans around the world. But what moved Brazilians most was the sight of the Atanasio Girardot stadium, full to the very brim with supporters, on the night that Atletico had been due to host Chape. Songs of strength rang around the arena; doves were released into the limitless sky. That evening, Brazil fell in love with Colombia.
On Wednesday, those at the Estadio Nilton Santos sought to pay some of the affection back in kind. There were warm embraces for every Tricolor player, from their Brazil counterparts but also from the survivors. Jackson Follmann, who only left his hospital bed in Medellin earlier this week after having his right leg amputated below the knee, looked especially touched as the two teams lined up for a group photo on the halfway line. "Today was an important day," he said afterward. "I'll never forget it."
Yet for all the heartening brotherhood on display, it was hard to deny that there was something a touch unsatisfying about the occasion. The numbers were simply not there: Fewer than 19,000 were in attendance, leaving swathes of the ground sparsely populated and reducing the power of the minute's applause that preceded kickoff.
This does not reflect well on the CBF, who decided to stage the match at 9:45 p.m. on a weeknight and set prices that could best be described as ambitious. The cheapest ticket came in at R$70 (U.S. $22) -- no fortune but pretty steep by local standards. Likewise, more supporters might have been tempted to attend had the game taken place at the Maracana rather than the Engenhao, which had hosted a grand total of one Brazil match before Colombia's visit. But Rio's most iconic stadium is currently out of action due to a petty legal dispute over whose responsibility it was to clean the place after the Olympic Games, which means the lesser ground got the nod.
This was a very Brazilian solution, then, and the contrast between the atmosphere at the Atanasio Girardot all those weeks ago and that at the Engenhao could hardly have been more marked. Those who made the effort can be proud of their contribution to the R$1.22million (U.S. $390,000) raised for the families of the victims, but as one Brazilian radio presenter wistfully noted, "The Colombians filled the stadium, and there wasn't even a match on."
On the field, too, there was reason to despair. Willian Arao, a busy midfielder making his debut for the Selecao, was widely booed by Botafogo fans still angry at his defection to rivals Flamengo last year. That kind of rote partisanship is par for the course in Brazil, but it was jarring in this context, not least because Arao used to play for Chapecoense. Such are the risks of scattergun solipsism.
Amid so much love and frustration, the match itself was almost an afterthought, but Brazil made sure it was one that went in their favour, as they secured a 1-0 win courtesy of Dudu's close-range header early in the second half. That is now seven wins in seven for Tite, though he was understandably in no real mood to revel in that record.
"The result is the least important thing today," he said. "Today, we should be thankful to the Colombian people, to the Brazilian people, to Chapecoense. This match was about humanity more than competition."
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football and the national team for ESPN FC.