over the last few weeks, i've spent a surprising amount of time fixated on chapecoense, the cinderella-story brazilian soccer team (in 2009, they were playing in the fourth-tier league) whose wildly improbable rise to the finals of the copa sudamericana—the second most prestigious club football competition in south america—was cut short when the team's plane crashed in colombia en route to their game in medellín, killing the coaching staff and 19 of the team's 22 players. i hadn't even heard of them until news began to spread about the community's response: atlético national, the other team that was to play in the finals, asked conmebol, the organization in charge of the tournament, to declare chapecoense the champions. clubs requested that chapecoense be exempt from relegation (when the lowest-ranking teams in a series are downgraded to a lower series) for three years, and offered to loan them players. (“It is a minimum gesture of solidarity that is at our disposal at the moment, but endowed with the sincere objective of reconstruction of this institution and the Brazilian football that was lost today. #ForçaChape”). danilo, the 25-year-old goalkeeper who was one of the team's three initial survivors (and died a few moments after speaking to his wife from the hospital), was named brazil's player of the year today; his mother accepted the award.
my relationship with sports is complicated. i played soccer for about ten years and was a referee for a bit; everyone played in southern california in the '90s. the u.s. world cup team's permanent training site was a ten-minute drive from our house, and my high school coach was married to marcelo balboa (which she never let us forget). i wasn't especially good, though, and i hated the fact that my parents would drop everything for my sisters' far-flung tournaments but couldn't seem to be bothered to come to my (cough) debate conferences. (my sisters were also both sorority girls, but that's a story for another time.) despite the fact that i was clumsy and deeply slow, though, soccer was weirdly empowering; i still remember the time i almost broke a guy's leg in a scrimmage with something like pride. my first serious boyfriend decided i was the one for him after watching me play. i lost my shit along with everyone else when brandi chastain whipped her jersey off at the '99 world cup, and i found my third or fourth wind in the last mile of my first half marathon when someone beside me started chanting "i believe that we will win." (sorry, team, but it's tim howard's now.) i can take or leave pro sports, but soccer chokes me up—complicated songs that grown men sing like hymns at the top of their lungs, the gentlemanly coaches in suits, the little boys and girls who escort the players to the field. people go to war over the beautiful game, they throw each other over bridges, they award titles to a foundering team. it's not for me to say whether a basketball, baseball, or american football league would do something like that for colleagues in similar circumstances, but it heartens me that neto, the surviving player who woke from a coma just yesterday and asked who won the finals, will learn that he is a champion.