Chapecoense drew 2-2 with Brazilian champions Palmeiras on Saturday in their first match since most of their players were killed in an air crash in Colombia in November.
In a game laden with symbolism, tears and a sense of a new beginning, the stadium was adorned with thousands of hand-made origami in the shape of hearts and tsurus, birds that signify health, good fortune and long life.
“Today was different,” said Wellington Paulista, one of Chapecoense’s new signings. “It all went well and it was good for everyone, most importantly the fans here in Chapeco.”
Palmeiras scored the opener after nine minutes when Raphael Veiga nipped in between hesitant defenders to score from just inside the box.
Grolli equalised for the home side five minutes later when he headed home a free kick from the left. Amaral gave Chapecoense the lead just minutes into the second half with a glancing header.
But Vitinho grabbed a late equaliser for Palmeiras with a spectacular left-foot shot from outside the box. It was the first time Chapecoense had taken the field since November, when most of their players were killed in an air crash as they travelled to Medellin to play Atletico Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final.
The plane ran out of fuel just and crashed into a mountainside, killing 71 people on board, many of them players, officials and journalists on their way to the game. Only six people survived.
The survivors and their relatives took centre stage before Saturday’s game, with Jackson Follman, the goalkeeper whose leg was amputated as a result of the crash, being presented with the Copa Sudamericana trophy in a tearful ceremony.
The wives of the dead players were awarded the medals their husbands would have received.
Chapecoense were give the Sudamericana title by CONMEBOL in December after the fixture was cancelled. Saturday’s game was the first of the season for both teams and played under a hot sun. Chapecoense used 23 different players in what was a glorified training match. But the football was always secondary to the emotion.
The game was halted after 71 minutes so fans could commemorate the 71 people killed in the accident. Supporters from both sides chanted the now familiar “Vamos Chape!” and both sets of players applauded the scene. Almost 20,000 fans turned out to honour the team and mark what many said they hoped would be a renaissance.
“We couldn’t not be here,” Sizelda Filipi, a fan who lives around 30 kms from the ground, said shortly before kick-off.
“We’ll get very emotional and then we’ll move on. This is a restart.”