Chapeco, Brazil: Fans of Brazil's Chapecoense football club whose team was wiped out in a Colombian air crash crammed into the home stadium late Wednesday for tearful prayers around the empty pitch.
The stadium in Chapeco, southern Brazil, was a solid wall of green as fans and mourners dressed in the team shirt stood shoulder to shoulder.
They gathered at exactly the hour their team, which just a few years ago was in Brazil's gritty lower leagues, should have been kicking off in Medellin, Colombia against Atletico Nacional for the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana finals.
Instead of participating in what would have been the biggest match in the club's history, the team, many of the chief staff, and 20 Brazilian journalists were killed when their charter plane slammed into a mountainside short of the airport late Monday.
And instead of sitting excitedly in front of televisions to watch the action in Colombia, the people of Chapeco, a provincial city of about 200,000, trooped into their stadium to mourn and join in ecumenical prayer.
Players who had not been on the doomed flight, youth academy members, relatives of those killed and throngs upon throngs of ordinary fans joined together, all in the team colors.
There were few dry eyes as a film was projected to pay homage to the dead teammates.
The team had an outsized presence here and its inspiring story of unknowns who rose to take on champions had spread across Brazil.
"I think this transcends football. It has become something human. This is why I decided to come and pay my respects for the players who left Chapeco with a dream and who will never be forgotten," said student Daniel Augusto Barrera, 21.
Teacher Aline Fonseca, 21, said the sudden deaths of the team members had torn a hole in the community.
"Chapeco is not a big city. We would meet (the players) in the street, anywhere. It's hard to keep going," she said.
"This gathering -- they deserved twice as a big a gathering," said pensioner Nelio Dalbosco, 73.
"We have to fight to try to rebuild a team that will be as good and to keep going. Life doesn't stop," he said.
Hard to take in
The first bodies were expected to be flown back from Colombia, where they are being identified, later this week.
Club leaders said they hope to organize a mass wake at the stadium to give the players a true Chapecoense sendoff.
"Our desire is for a group wake to be held here," said club official Gelson Della Costa at a press conference, adding that the families' permission was being sought.
Though 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.
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