Chapecoense beat Figueirense 2-1 on Tuesday to guarantee a top-four place in Brazil's Serie B and an immediate return to the country's top division following last season's relegation. Go behind the scenes of the team's resurgence following one of the deadliest tragedies in football in 2016.
By Michael Place
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) -- When Alan Ruschel returned to the city of Chapeco in January 2020, he knew the year ahead would be difficult.
But not even the veteran left-back could have imagined the challenges awaiting Chapecoense - the club from southern Brazil that knows all about adversity following a 2016 plane crash in Colombia that killed most of its players and coaching staff.
First came the sacking of head coach Hemerson Maria, who was replaced by Umberto Louzer in mid-February, after a poor start to the 2020 season. A month later, all football competitions in Brazil began a hiatus that lasted nearly four months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
All the while Ruschel, one of only six survivors of the aviation tragedy that claimed 71 lives, and most of his teammates had to contend with receiving only a part of their salary due to the club's dire financial plight.
But the biggest blow came in December when Chapecoense president Paulo Magro died due to complications from COVID-19.
Despite these setbacks, Chape - as the club is affectionately known by fans - secured their return to Brazil's top flight last Tuesday (Jan. 12) with a 2-1 home victory over Figueirense.
"It's been a year of great struggle, commitment, and responsibility," Ruschel, 31, said in an interview published on the official website of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF).
"The group understood the identity and essence of Chapecoense and pursued a single objective. We left aside the countless difficulties that appeared and set a bigger goal that was to create history by returning Chape to the Serie A. There was no vanity here and there was no tension inside the dressing room, which ensured that we were united, strong, and happy," added Ruschel, who is the only crash survivor that is still playing.
Chapecoense's successful season shouldn't come as a surprise, given the club's penchant for overcoming hardships.
Following the air disaster, the CBF offered Chape a deal that would have protected them from relegation for the ensuing three years, regardless of where they finished in the standings.
Club directors declined the proposal, however, saying they did not want to receive preferential treatment.
Despite having to rebuild their squad from almost scratch in 2017, Chape somehow managed to qualify for the following year's Copa Libertadores - South America's top club competition.
They also fielded a competitive team in 2018, but their impressive run ended in November 2019 when they were relegated to Serie B amid a crippling financial crisis and internal upheaval.
Magro, who took over as president in the weeks before Chapecoense's demotion, immediately sought to restore morale - both in the dressing room and among fans.
One of his first moves was to recall Ruschel from a loan spell with rivals Goias and appoint him the first-team captain. Almost simultaneously, Magro named former defender Helio Neto, also a survivor of the doomed LaMia charter flight, as the club's football director.
"I had a very frank conversation with Paulo when I returned to Chape, and he told me about the situation the club was in," said Ruschel, who spent more than two weeks in hospital following the accident and underwent back surgery before returning to the pitch nine months later.
"He said that I would be a leader of the squad, that he would depend on me for the restructuring and I committed myself together with him and Neto. It was tough in the beginning ... but [we] learned to deal with adverse situations, mainly with the salary. Along with me there were other experienced guys like Joao Ricardo, Anselmo Ramon and Anderson Leite who also understood the essence of the club and played important roles."
Chapecoense's players now have their sights set on the club's first-ever league title. With four games remaining in their Serie B campaign, Chape are currently two points behind leaders America-MG, who have three games left.
"Now that we've achieved our goal of promotion, the dream of winning the title is very close, and we're going after it," Ruschel said.
"It will be very difficult because America-MG is a very good team. But we know that if we do what we've been doing over the past year, we are fully capable of being champions."
Those who have followed the fortunes of Ruschel and Chapecoense over the past five years wouldn't doubt it for a second.