Chapecoense open Copa Libertadores with win worth more than three points
A little over three months have passed since the Chapecoense air disaster, when the plane carrying the team to the first leg of last year's Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional in Colombia crashed on its approach to Medellin airport.
The club's next long trip north had a happy ending. On Tuesday, the little club from Brazil played their first-ever game in the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League. They had to make an immense journey from the south of Brazil to Maracaibo in Venezuela, where they would face local champions Zulia. And Chapecoense can travel home in high spirits after getting their campaign off to a wonderful start with a 2-1 win.
These are three points to be savoured. There were many obstacles to be overcome, starting, of course, with the need to replace almost the entire playing and coaching staff. Three of the six survivors of the accident were Chapecoense players. Two of them, centre-back Neto and left-back Alan Ruschel may play again, and have been included in the Libertadores squad. But they are still recovering. A new coach, Vagner Mancini, was appointed with the daunting task of starting almost from scratch, and of rapidly assembling a side able to be competitive in this, the club's first Libertadores adventure.
And there are certainly easier places to start. In addition to the travelling time, Maracaibo is an awkward venue for visitors. It is hot, the pitch is in poor condition and a fierce wind blows straight down the field. Moreover, Zulia are tricky opponents, with the veteran attacking midfielder Juan Arango clicking nicely with his much younger lieutenants, the pacey Yohandry Orozco and the skilful Jefferson Savarino.
For Chapecoense to win in such circumstances is a considerable achievement. Theirs was not a performance to fulfil the dreams of the purist. How could it be? They looked like a relatively mediocre Brazilian side because that is, at the present time, all they can realistically aim to be. But they applied themselves magnificently and intelligently, closing down space in the centre of the field to block the Arango-Orozco-Savarino threat, and breaking with pace, especially with winger Niltinho and the man of the match, left-back Reinaldo.
They played with the wind in the first half, keeping Zulia at bay and taking the lead from a free kick, won by Niltinho and whipped in viciously from a narrow angle by Reinaldo. After the break the hosts had the wind in their sails, and the Brazilians were happy to hold on. They perhaps surprised even themselves when they doubled the lead, Luiz Antonio superbly guiding home a shot from the edge of the area.
Then came the Zulia onslaught. Chapecoense ceded once, failing to deal with a corner and allowing Arango to nod home. The veteran came close to equalising, producing a technically brilliant volley which keeper Arthur Moraes did well to tip over the bar. The shot was so well executed that it deserved a goal -- in any game other than this one. It would be hard even for Zulia fans to begrudge Chapecoense a win on their first night in the Libertadores.
The club have made it very clear that they have no wish to be treated as a special case. They quickly rejected any idea that they should be protected from relegation to Brazil's second division and given a three-year period to rebuild. They want to stand by their own merits, applying the same basic virtues that helped carry a modest club so far.
Some have even been shown relief at the fact that a section of the home crowd, after disappointing domestic performances, have jeered the team. It seems very harsh. But then again, Brazilian fans tend to jeer their own team. If some of the Chapecoense supporters are doing it, then that can be taken as a sign of normality, and is therefore to be welcomed. But it would be nice, in next Thursday's home match against Lanus of Argentina, if no jeering is heard. Chapecoense's stadium has been the scene of a wake. In the club's first home match in the Libertadores, it should play host to a celebration.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.