In Good Conscience

Regaining hope is the hardest challenge after Brazil tragedy

Later today, it is anticipated that 100,000 people, about half the population of the agricultural city of Chapeco in southern Brazil are expected to pack the area around the Arena Conda stadium.

It will be a wake - a mass mourning that, in football terms, maybe only the people of Turin, Manchester, Lima and Lusaka can truly comprehend.

Millions of footballers fly. The higher their status, the more likely they are to take flights that are as common to the best of them as taking taxis around town.

When catastrophe strikes, when it seems that the best of teams are wiped out in a matter of seconds, the hardest thing to regain is hope.

That will seem very far away to Brazilians right now.

Some are literally asking God why Chapecoense, a small city team who rose to the top division in Brazil only in 2014, could be so cruelly destroyed in the plane crash in Colombia on the eve of playing the final of the Copa Sudamericana.

Leading clubs across Brazil have offered to loan players to the stricken club, and suggested that Chapecoense be granted at least three seasons in which the club should not be relegated.

Those of a nervous disposition regarding air travel may wish to look away now.

The references above tell us that a combination of human error and mechanical failure has done this to other great teams in the past.

Torino were the pride of Italian football and in fact their players filled almost every place in the Azzurri national line-up until, in May 1949, the team's Fiat aeroplane struck the retaining wall of the hilltop Basilica of Superga, killing all 31 people aboard.

Il Grande Torino was no more. The club's junior players fulfilled the remaining four fixtures of that season and, through a grand gesture by the opponents who likewise fielded juniors, Torino retained their title.

But some say the team, the club, were never the same. That hope died on that mountain.

The next evocative disaster, the decimation of Manchester United's "Busby Babes", came not in the air, but on the runway of a Munich airfield in February 1958. Its wings iced up, the runway was slushy after snow, and the plane attempted three take-offs after a refuelling stop following a European Cup match in Belgrade (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia). On the third attempt, the aircraft hit a perimeter fence.

Great players were lost, and great men, among them Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton, survived. They became synonymous with arguably the most inspirational rebuilding story in sport - the re-crafting of Sir Matt's team into the world-acclaimed club that is United today.

A Brazilian friend, still in shock after Monday's crash, suggests that "Chape" are not Manchester United, and that their entire salary budget would not cover the wage of Gabriel Jesus, the new Brazil striker who has just landed in England to join Manchester City.

In fact, the United of 1958 had more in common with Chapecoense that my friend Tito knows. The United squad in those days was predominantly home-grown; only one player on the books had a car, the rest got to the training ground by bicycle or bus.

But that's by the by. United (and City and so many more) are now global clubs, largely owned by foreigners and featuring players who come in from all corners of the world.

Meanwhile, retracing the tragic path set before us, Alianza Lima saw the biggest loss of life in South American football when their team were among the 43 people killed when their Peruvian Navy plane plunged into the Pacific Ocean just 10km from its destination after a league match in December 1987.

Only the pilot survived and he was partially blamed for the disaster, along with mechanical failure of the landing gear.

Six years later, in April 1993, another military plane, carrying the national team of Zambia, ditched into the Atlantic Ocean near Libreville, Gabon.

All 30 lives were lost, including the air force pilot who was cited for shutting down the wrong engine after a fire.

The hopelessness that now surrounds Chapeco was very much felt by Zambians then. However one player, Kalusha Bwalya, happened not to be abroad. He belonged to PSV Eindhoven at the time, and was making his own way from the Netherlands when the team's military aircraft went down.

Bwalya in time became president of the Zambian FA, and was in charge when the Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets), as the team are known, won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012.

It was hosted by Gabon, and the final was won at Libreville. Destiny, Bwalya would say.

Can any of that (the resurrection of the Busby Babes, the victory in Libreville) bring even a morsel of solace in Brazil?

Maybe not yet. Maybe it is too soon in the raw process of repatriating the bodies.

Possibly a club whose leading strikers, Bruno Rangel and Everton Kempes, were both aged 34, and did not survive, cannot see a new beginning.

As those who are left to piece together a new team have observed, the first duty is a humanitarian one concerning the bereaved.

The second will come when experts examine the black boxes and tell us, if they can, whether the apparent drastic fuel shortage was down to pilot miscalculation, a leak, or some other catastrophic mishap as yet unknown in the demand for instant answers.

Right now, it does sound appalling. The alleged recording of that exchange between the pilot and the female traffic controller is raw, harrowing, haunting.

"Complete electrical failure, senorita," the pilot had said. "Without fuel."

She had to tell him that he was third in the queue for landing in Medellin; that another aircraft with reported fuel deficiency had priority.

Heaven help us if this is commonplace, or if airlines are dicing with the death by trying to scrimp on fuel.

We cannot, should not, attempt to know all the answers yet to a tragedy that has only just happened.

We also cannot predict the future. But we might cling to the gestures of Atletico Medellin, who said they do not want the trophy, which should go to Chapecoense.

Leading clubs across Brazil have offered to loan players to the stricken club, and suggested that Chapecoense be granted at least three seasons in which the club should not be relegated.

Gestures will bring no one back. Money will not compensate. But it is totally understandable that 13,000 Brazilians signed up, and paid up, for membership of the club whose total members before this week numbered 9,000.

"Sou Chape!" people are saying. "I am Chape!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Regaining hope is the hardest challenge after Brazil tragedy'. Print Edition | Subscribe