Fans mass at Brazil to mourn dead players

People participate in a tribute to the players of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real killed in a plane crash in the Colombian mountains. File Photo: AFP

Thousands of Brazilians who had been expecting to spend Wednesday night cheering their beloved Chapecoense football team in its hour of glory were instead gathering at the home stadium to mourn dead players.

The reality of late Monday's crash in the Colombian mountains of a charter plane carrying the team to a regional championship final against Atletico Nacional in Medellin had yet to sink in fully.

Fans in the provincial city of Chapeco in southern Brazil donned the club's green and white shirt and tried to absorb the sudden absence of a team that had been about to crown its dream season with a shot at the Copa Sudamericana title.

"Chapeco is not a big city. We would meet (the players) in the street, anywhere. It's hard to keep going. It was already hard yesterday. The city is devastated," said teacher Aline Fonseca, 21.

"We're not putting on loud music, not listening to anything," Fonseca said.

The first bodies are not expected to be flown back from Colombia, where they are being identified, until later this week.

However, the fans will be meeting in the stands in the Chapecoense stadium, which has been draped in black ribbons, at the exact moment when the team was meant to have been kicking off against Atletico Nacional in Medellin for the first leg of the final in the continent's number two tournament.

The crash of the charter plane close to its destination killed 71 people, including 20 Brazilian sports journalists traveling to cover what would have been a remarkable occasion for a club that rose from the lower leagues to contend in the top tier.

Mass wake

If it hadn't been for the tragedy, much of this city of 200,000 would have been glued to the television watching their heroes take on the fancied Colombian club.

They were also preparing for the decisive second game, which was due to be held in the city of Curitiba rather than Chapeco, because the stadium was more suitable.

Instead, team officials and family members were bracing to receive the bodies by the end of the week.

Club leaders said they hope to organize a mass wake for the bodies at the stadium, with as many as 100,000 people cramming in.

"Our desire is for a collective wake to be held here," said club official Gelson Della Costa at a press conference, adding that the families' permission was being sought.

Although the plans have not been finalized and there isn't even a fixed date for the bodies' return, emergency services did a dry run Wednesday of the route that the coffins would take from the airport to the stadium.

"It's still hard to believe. I think we'll only really take it in when the dead arrive. We are in deep sorrow," said Valemar Jardine, 50, who runs a newsstand.

For the vice president of the football club, though, reality has already set in -- brutally.

"It was very difficult on entering the meeting room in the morning and seeing all the empty seats of our companions, and knowing that I was also on the list to travel but didn't go in the end," said Ivan Tozzo, his voice trembling.