Colombian players hailed as heroes in Brazil after air crash

CHAPECO, Brazil — Fans of Brazilian club Chapecoense have greeted their rivals from Colombia’s Atletico Nacional with open arms and genuine gratitude ahead of their first meeting to decide a South American trophy, a moment that had previously been denied the teams after an air crash killed 71 people four months ago, including 19 members of the Southern Brazilian side.

Chapecoense and Nacional will play on Tuesday in Chapeco, a city of 200,000 residents, for the first leg of the Recopa Sudamericana. The final is contested between the winners of the prestigious Copa Libertadores, won by the Colombians in 2016, and the Copa Sudamericana champions.

Both teams were supposed to play at the end of last year for the Copa Sudamericana title, but the match never took place when the plane flying the Chapecoense team to Colombia crashed. As a mark of respect, Nacional agreed that Chapecoense should be awarded the championship.

On Monday, citizens of Chapeco showed their appreciation to the Colombians as soon as the team touched down in their southern Brazilian city. The airplane carrying the Nacional team was showered by water cannons and players were welcomed to the tune of “Amigos para Siempre.”

Nacional staff and players then walked through a human tunnel, lined with flags of both clubs, and were presented with medals for their decision to award Chapecoense the Copa Sudamericana title. After a brief ceremony, they were paraded through the streets of Chapeco on a fire truck, and applauded all the way to their city hotel.

“This is very different,” Nacional coach Reynaldo Rueda told journalists. “Even at the airport in Sao Paulo, we had so many Brazilian fans coming to us. We came here many times (before) and no one, except Colombians, approached us. Now, it is as if we were from here.”

Nacional defender Daniel Bocanegra said Tuesday’s match was sure to be a deeply emotional occasion for both teams.

“It is obvious that this is more than a game,” he said. “We are humans, it is impossible not to hope for the best for our adversaries too.”

Billboards in the city also paid tribute to Nacional. “When a brother visits, the whole city overflows with emotion,” on message read. Another described Nacional as “world champions in respect and solidarity.”

“That is the very least we could do,” 25-year-old Chapecoense fan Douglas Priotti said. “They were supposed to be our adversaries then, but now they are our heroes too.”

The second leg of the final will be held on May 10 at the Atanasio Girardot stadium in Medellin.

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