United by tragedy, Chapecoense to finally play Nacional in Recopa
South America's Recopa Sudamericana is the classic "title that is not really a title."
It is the annual home and away meeting of the winners of the continent's two club competitions, the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana.
The flaw is obvious. It is not a meeting of equals -- at least in terms of prestige. The Libertadores is so much more important than the Sudamericana, and nothing that happens over the course of these two games is going to change that. In the normal course of events, one wonders whether there is much point in staging the thing.
This year, though, there can be no complaints. The meeting of the winners of the 2016 Libertadores and the Sudamericana could hardly be more worthwhile. Because if the major justification for the game of football is to bring people together and make friends, then this game is the perfect example -- but it is one forged in tragedy.
At the end of last November, little Chapecoense of Brazil made a long trip north to Medellin in Colombia where they would play the biggest game of their lives -- the first leg of the Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional. Of course, they never made it. The plane crashed on its approach to the airport, killing 71 of the 77 people on board -- most of them the players and coaching staff of the gallant club.
Their meeting with Nacional, then, never happened. The tragedy united the football world in mourning -- and Nacional behaved in an exemplary fashion. At the time the match was due to take place they through open the doors of the stadium and held a desperately touching service for those who had died. And from the Colombian club came the suggestion -- accepted by the authorities -- that Chapecoense be awarded the trophy and declared champions.
This gesture held much more than symbolic value. In addition to the prize money, it guaranteed Chapecoense in this year's Libertadores. Their debut campaign in South America's premier club competition will bring in much needed revenue as they go about the arduous task of rebuilding.
As Sudamercana champions, they also have the right to take part in the Recopa, which pits them against the winners of the Libertadores -- which as fate would have it, are none other than Atletico Nacional. The two teams, now firm friends and blood brothers, meet on Tuesday night in Brazil, with a return game in Medellin on May 10. A little over four months after the match that never happened, the teams will finally face each other in Chapecoense's Arena Conda.
Of course, they are different teams. The Brazilians have had to start from scratch after losing almost their entire squad. Coach Vagner Mancini was appointed with the tough task of quickly putting together a competitive line up. The Colombians completed a cycle after taking part in the Club World Cup last December. Several key players have moved on. Experienced former internationals, midfielder Aldo Leao Ramirez and striker Dayro Moreno, have been drafted in to ease the transition.
Both clubs will be aiming for the title, giving the prospect of two well-balanced games. But more important than the outcome, and the destiny of the Recopa trophy, is the extra depth that will hopefully be added to the friendship between these two clubs, symbols of the global bonds that football can help forge.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.