CHAPECÓ, Brazil: A small Brazilian city will hold a massive funeral Saturday to honor its football team, wiped out at the height of their glory in a plane crash that killed 71 people.
The southern city of Chapeco is expecting some 100,000 people — half its population — to descend on Conda Arena, the stadium where just 10 days ago the home team, Chapecoense Real, were lighting up the pitch.
The unsung club’s fairytale season was cut tragically short Monday night when the charter plane flying them to their next match ran out of fuel and smashed into the mountains outside Medellin, Colombia.
Chapecoense had been on their way to Medellin for the biggest match in the club’s history: the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-biggest club tournament.
The coffins of 51 players, coaches and other Chapecoense figures killed in the crash will arrive early Saturday on three Brazilian air force planes.
They will then go on a funeral procession to the stadium and be laid out on the pitch. Brazilian President Michel Temer will meet the planes on arrival. The coach of the Brazilian national team, Tite, and FIFA chief Gianni Infantino will attend the memorial at the stadium. The latter canceled a trip to Australia to be there.
The crash has left the football world in mourning. Football legends Pele and Maradona as well as current superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have led tributes to the fallen team in recent days.
A minute’s silence for Chapecoense will be held before every Champions League and Europa League game next week.
In Brazil, other clubs have offered Chapecoense players so it can continue competing. Special funds have also been set up.
Inside the stadium, a single set of goal posts remains — the one star goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha, 31, defended in the semi-final match with a heroic last-minute save that sealed Chapecoense’s trip to the finals.
“It’s a horrible feeling, seeing this and knowing my son will arrive here in a coffin,” said his mother, Ilaide Padilha.
“It’s very sad remembering not only that stop (against Argentina’s San Lorenzo), but also… him running across the grass with his arms wide open. My son was all passion.”
– Overflow crowd –
The stadium has capacity for just 19,000 people. Two giant screens will be set up outside the stadium for the overflow crowd. Tents have been set up on the pitch for some 2,000 family members and close friends of the victims.
The other victims — 13 Brazilians, five Bolivians and a Venezuelan — were flown home Friday. Six people miraculously survived the crash, and are being treated in local hospitals. Chapecoense defender Alan Ruschel is in intensive care after back surgery. Backup goalkeeper Jakson Follmann has undergone multiple surgeries, including the amputation of his right leg.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the crash. A harrowing recording has emerged of the panicked pilot asking the control tower for priority to land because his British Aerospace 146 jet was out of fuel.
Colombia’s civil aviation safety chief, Freddy Bonilla, said the plane disregarded international rules on fuel reserves.
The Bolivia-based charter company, LAMIA, had its permit suspended Thursday, and the government there ordered an investigation into its operations.
Bolivia has also suspended the executive staff of its civil aviation authority and the airports administrator for the duration of the probe.
Investigators are examining pilot error and air traffic control problems as possible factors in the crash. LAMIA, which specializes in flying Latin American football teams, had ferried local clubs and national sides around the region, including superstar Lionel Messi. -AFP