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Chapeco gathers to remember its fallen team

You could easily have mistaken it for a celebration: a packed stadium, effervescent green flares fizzing among the fans. The rhythmic drumbeat, the clapping, the chanting.

It was anything but.

On Wednesday night, at a time when their team should have been playing in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final, this tight-knit community gathered to remember its fallen heroes.

The chartered jet flying the team to Medellin, Colombia, crashed, killing more than 70 on board.

For many, the carnival atmosphere was a stark reminder of what had been suddenly lost; at times it was all too much.

A celebration of mass was conducted on the field, in the center circle. Surviving players, who hadn’t made the trip, were joined by many of the bereaved families … parents, wives, girlfriends and children who had all waved off their heroes on a trip of a lifetime; a trip from which they never returned.

José Nivaldo Martins Constante, one of the team’s goalkeepers, didn’t make the trip.

“It was my destiny,” he said. “I have this dual feeling of being alive today, but deep in my heart, what if I had gone?”

He’s played for the team for 10 years, but isn’t sure it’s possible to go on.

Chapecoense is a community club. Honest men who played for the honor instead of the paycheck, an underdog team who’d been through thick and thin together before finally hitting an ill-fated jackpot.

As the club’s recent highlights played out on the big screen, Senhor Jorge watched and wept. For 25 years, he’d hung the players’ jerseys in the locker room. Eventually he could take it no more, turning and walking back inside the stadium alone.

Eight directors, six coaches, five medical staff and 19 players lost their lives in Colombia, including the 32-year-old defender Filipe José Machado. He died on his father’s birthday. When his dad took the field and glanced at a photograph of his son, he crumpled with emotion.

Some drew strength from the energy of the crowd; as one player’s girlfriend realized the enormity of the moment, she paused, closed her eyes, opened her arms and raised her palms. Choking back the tears, she was rooted to the spot for almost a minute.

I’ve covered many big soccer occasions, this was totally unique and it was impossible not to be moved by their grief, particularly the bereaved young children who cried and cried; surely this surreal occasion was almost too much for them to truly process.

This club knows it must try to find a way to heal and survive. Amidst the tragedy, there was an air of defiance, as if the fans are going to drive the recovery through sheer force of will.

But tonight was very, very hard for everyone. And with the bodies still to return to Chapeco and a totally uncertain future ahead, it’s not going to get any easier.