Football: Tears flow as Chapecoense, whose players died in Colombian plane crash, return to action in season opener

Brazilian Chapecoense goalkeeper Jackson Follmann, a survivor of the LaMia airplane crash in Colombia, holds the Copa Sudamericana trophy at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco. PHOTO: AFP

CHAPECO (BRAZIL) (REUTERS) - Thousands of fans gathered under a blazing sun in southern Brazil on Saturday as Chapecoense played their first match since most of their players were killed in an air crash in Colombia in November.

The friendly against Palmeiras was the first game of the season for both sides but it was much more about symbolism and emotion than sport for a club looking to bounce back from one of football's great tragedies.

The game was halted in the 71st minute to allow fans to scream their now famous "Vamos Chape!" chant in tribute to the players and staff who perished in a plane crash in Colombia in November.

The Arena Conda stadium was adorned with thousands of hand-made origami in the shape of hearts and tsurus, birds that signify health, good fortune and long life.

Brazilian Chapecoense footballer Helio Neto (front, right), a survivor of the LaMia airplane crash in Colombia, embraces relatives of players who died in an airplane crash, at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco. PHOTO: AFP

One banner behind the goals read, "Eternal Champions, kit man to the president", a reference to the many players and backroom staff who died.

The survivors and their relatives took centre stage before a ball was kicked, with Jackson Follman, the goalkeeper whose leg was amputated as a result of the crash, being presented with the Copa Sudamericana trophy in a tearful ceremony.

Follman was one of only six people to survive the crash, which came as the Chapecoense squad approached Medellin to play Atletico Nacional in November's Copa Sudamericana final.

The plane ran out of fuel and hit a mountainside, killing 71 people on board, many of them players, officials and reporters on their way to the game.

Chapecoense were awarded the Sudamericana title by Conmebol, football's governing body in South America, in December after the fixture was cancelled.

In an emotional ceremony, the wives of the dead players were given the medals their husbands would have received.

Follman, who was wheeled into the centre circle in his wheelchair, cried as he lifted the trophy, Chapecoense's first-ever continental title.

The ground was well short of its 20,000 capacity but those who did turn out said they hoped it was the start of a new era for the club.

"We couldn't not be here," Sizelda Filipi, a fan who lives around 30km from the ground, said shortly before kick-off. "We'll get very emotional and then we'll move on. This is a restart."

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