Silence, mourning since fatal crash turn to hope at Chapeco

Vagner Mancini, the new coach of Chapecoense soccer team attends a training session in Chapeco, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Three Chapecoense players survived and 19 players perished in an air crash that killed 71 people almost two months ago in Colombia. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
The new Chapecoense soccer team sits in a bus on their way to a training session in Chapeco, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Three Chapecoense players survived and 19 players perished in an air crash that killed 71 people almost two months ago in Colombia. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
The new Chapecoense soccer team sits in a bus on their way to a training session in Chapeco, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Three Chapecoense players survived and 19 players perished in an air crash that killed 71 people almost two months ago in Colombia. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

CHAPECO, Brazil — Silence and mourning are slowly being replaced by boisterous fans and hope.

As the Chapecoense club rebuilds after the air crash that killed 19 players and nearly all members of the staff and board of directors, so is the town of 200,000. Like many in Brazil, football is the oxygen for everything: gossip, community pride and heated debate.

On Saturday, Chapecoense's 20,000-capacity Arena Conda will host the team's first match since the tragedy almost two months ago. Lines outside are filled with fans excited about the club's and the city's restart. Fifty coffins lined the same field in November, where this time Chape's reconstructed team will play Brazilian champion Palmeiras in a friendly match.

"I bet I won't be able to sleep Friday night," 19-year-old fan Marcelo Ribeiro said as he walked to the stadium. "Since the accident the city is dead. The festivities were mostly canceled at the end of the year, and all most people are thinking about is the rebirth. I want to see what the rebirth looks like."

At the Hotel Bertaso, where most of Chape's players and coaching staff have traditionally lodged, the first signs of that rebirth are obvious. The second floor, which was home to many of the victims, including coach Caio Junior, is once again full.

"I can't help feeling a lot of hope for the future now," said receptionist Gelson Mangone, who lost several friends in that crash on an Andean mountain side near Medellin, Colombia, on Nov.28.

"It has been a lot of work to settle all these new signings here, they are also learning their way here," the receptionist said. "But it does feel like a brand new start."

New coach Vagner Mancini is one of the hotel's new residents. He said the job makes him "a better human being, but it's the most challenging to face."

"We have to build a team, a coaching staff and a club infrastructure in a season in which Chape will be in demand," Mancini told The Associated Press.

"I understand now that the city was so affected because the club and the city are run like a family," he added. "The players we brought are cut from that cloth, but we have to reach a higher level now."

After the crash, Colombian club Atletico Nacional, which was to face Chape in the Copa Sudamericana final in Medellin, awarded the victory to the small Brazilian team.

That means that Chape qualified for South America's No. 1 tournament for the first time, the competitive Copa Libertadores. The team will also try to defend its title in the Santa Catarina state championship, try to stay up in Brazil's top-flight competition, and play in a pile of fundraisers, including one against Barcelona.

"We have to assemble a competitive team at the same time we need to hire someone to handle passports, contracts," Mancini said. "The club used to handle this well, but like a family run business. Now we are at a different moment."

Chapecoense had almost nothing left after the crash: six players that did not travel on the ill-fated flight, two physiotherapists, one goalkeeping coach, one doctor, one data analyst, one nurse and a few club officials.

New chairman and club co-founder Plinio David de Nes Filho, a wealthy local businessman known as Maninho, is leading the charge to bolster club finances. Former players like Nivaldo Constante, who played as a goalkeeper until the tragedy struck, are approaching players that can help. And Chapeco Mayor Luciano Buligon is working as a kind of ambassador for the club and the city.

"Our weekends were about three things: family, church and Chapecoense," Buligon said. "It has been hard to get the city back on track because the wounds are still very open. But we are slowly moving on. On Saturday we will start getting a part of our weekends back."

Not everyone is happy.

Rosangela Loureiro, widow of crash victim Cleber Santana, said she is upset because his belongings still have not been returned to the family.

"I feel sadness and rage. No one is doing anything to bring their belongings back. I plead with them to soften our pain and make us get the memories that we will hold dear for the rest of our lives," she said on Instagram last week.

Other widows have complained about damages not yet being paid by the club. Chapecoense directors say they are doing the best they can as they try to rebuild.

There are even complaints at the joyous Hotel Bertaso.

"These new players love to make a mess in their rooms," said a cleaner, who declined to offer her name. "The other ones were older, more mature and the new ones seem to be more infantile. I hope they are up for the task. The city really needs that now."

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