SAO PAULO (Reuters) - For a few glorious days, tiny Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense was the side of the moment, the latest in a string of sporting surprises in 2016.
Like Leicester City winning the Premier League for the first time or the Chicago Cubs finally taking baseball’s World Series after a 108-year wait, Chapecoense bucked the odds and delighted the romantics.
The team’s passage to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s equivalent of the Europa League, was a fairy tale to rival any of them.
“This wasn’t just a group where everyone respected each other, it was a family,” Plinio David de Nes Filho, a club director, told Globo TV on Tuesday morning, just hours after the accident wiped out almost the entire squad.
“Before they got on the plane they said they were going to make this dream come true. And this morning the dream ended.”
The end came suddenly when a charter flight taking Chapecoense to Wednesday’s Cup Final crashed into a forested mountainside near Medellin. But the rise of a team known as the Western Big Green had taken decades.
Founded in 1973 in the small agricultural city of Chapeco in western Santa Catarina state in southern Brazil, Chapecoense won its first state title four years later.
The team established itself in a competitive league without making waves outside the rugged region they called home and it was not until the new millennium that their fortunes changed.
Money troubles almost forced them to the wall but a group of local businessmen rescued them from financial collapse and set them on the road to the top.
Chapecoense won promotion from Serie D in 2009 and then rose steadily up the divisions, finally making it into the top tier in 2013.
Although it rank only 21st in Brazil in terms of revenue, Chapecoense has held its own against giants like Flamengo and Corinthians thanks to a prudent administration that eschewed expensive signings in favor of blending young talent and experienced journeymen.
The team was more than the sum of its parts and victories over Argentine giants Independiente and Pope Francis’ favorite team, San Lorenzo, were among its greatest ever.
Chapecoense was a rank outsider going into this week’s finale against Atletico Nacional, South America’s team of the moment.
But one look at the video taken in Chapecoense’s dressing room after the semi-final win would convince even the most pessimistic of fans that the team had a chance. Players and staff danced around chanting the club’s name with a joy born of teamwork and unity.
”They played for the love of the shirt and not for the money,“ fan Jean Panegalli, 17, told Reuters in Chapeco. ”They played with the commitment that only those who have lived here know.
“They were ferocious.”
Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro and Paulo Whitaker in Chapeco; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Bill Trott