Brazilian soccer team hangs on to underdog spirit after crash

Reuters , Friday 2 Dec 2016

Wreckage from a plane that crashed into Colombian jungle with Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense, is seen near Medellin, Colombia, November 29, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

For the scrappy soccer club from southern Brazil that lost nearly all of its players in a plane crash this week, the challenge ahead is not just fielding a new team but rebuilding a culture that made them outperformers despite tight budgets and limited star power.

Big-name clubs from Portugal's Benfica to Spain's Barcelona have offered players and charity matches but officials at grief-stricken club Chapecoense say the key to recovery will be staying humble and avoiding the excesses of Brazil's major clubs.

"We don't want anyone to pity Chapecoense," said Victor Hugo Nascimento, head of scouting and analysis, one of the few coaches who was not on the flight. "Any help is welcome but what we really want is to rebuild with the same dignity that got us here."

Nascimento said the club would remain selective in choosing its personnel, despite the offers flooding in.

"We don't want a superstar," he said. "We have to maintain the profile the club had. No one is reinventing anything."

That strategy includes a balanced budget even in tough times to avoid the debt that almost wrecked Chapecoense a decade ago, said acting President Ivan Tozzo.

He helped to lift the club from the fourth division to Brazil's top league in five years.

Of the club's five main directors, Tozzo and a colleague were the only ones not on the flight that plunged into a hillside in Colombia on Monday night on the way to the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, the biggest game in the club's history.

"We lost athletes. We lost directors. We lost people. But this club is well structured," he said. "We never spend more than we have ... We always make decisions collectively."

Chapecoense's players had forged a rare bond with Chapeco, a city of 200,000 in remote southern Brazil, as the club blended young local talent with undervalued journeymen who often brought their families to town and stayed after retirement.

Even if clubs from Brazil and abroad lend players at no cost, as many have promised, it will take time for the club to restore that culture, according to former player Everton Costa, who was a good friend of many lost in the accident.

"It was, it is, a family club," he said. "It was such a solid group. People knew each other well. And now you're going to get a player from here, a player from there. To rebuild all that is going to be difficult."

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