MEDELLIN, Colombia— The championship match that was canceled by a plane crash got replaced on Wednesday evening by one of the most poignant events in soccer history, thanks to the kindness of a city that has suffered its neighbor's pain as if it were its own.
In an emotional display of sportsmanship, tens of thousands of fans of Medellin's Atletico Nacional soccer team packed the stadium where the match would have been played. But instead of cheering for their team, they joined their favorite players in a memorial ceremony for their fallen rivals, Atletico Chapecoense, the Brazilian team that died Monday night in a charter plane crash that killed almost everyone on board.
Many of the fans traded in their team's green-and-white jerseys for white t-shirts emblazoned with the logos of both teams. Throughout the ceremony, in which funeral wreaths were presented to Chapecoense team officials, the Colombian fans chanted the Brazilian team's name and sang their rival's “war” songs at the top of their lungs.
“I'm here because I'm a soccer fan, not just a Nacional fan,” said Natalia Vasquez, a season ticket holder. “This is very sad, but at least it makes me feel like we had them here in the final.”
The ceremony culminated a mournful 48 hours in which Medellin's government and residents bent over backwards to help the tragically unlucky Brazilian team.
The Colombian city sprung into action moments after the plane crashed Monday night, killing 71 people. Medellin rescue workers were immediately deployed to the rural crash site, where they managed to pull six survivors from the wreckage. The city's Atletico Nacional, meanwhile, asked soccer tournament organizers to give the championship cup to their rivals posthumously, as a final show of respect.
Medellin also made quick arrangements to host the victims' Portuguese-speaking relatives, providing translation services and other types of assistance as they arrived, in small numbers, to recover the bodies of lost loved ones.
Medellin's mayor organized Wednesday night's memorial ceremony to begin at the soccer stadium at 6:45 PM, the same time that the kick-off had been scheduled for the Copa Sudamericana championship match. Attendance was free, and soccer fans were asked to come to the stadium dressed in white, holding candles as a sign of hope.
The stadium, which holds approximately 45,000 fans, was packed an hour before the event began. Thousands more who couldn't get in watched the memorial ceremony on two giant screens outside.
Juan Jose Chalarca, a burly member of “Los del Sur,” Nacional's unofficial and controversial fan club, brought a large wreath of white carnations to lay in the stadium in honor of Chapecoense.
“The championship doesn't matter anymore,” he said. “We are here to show the Brazilian people that we are with them, and that we are joining their pain and mourning.”
Medellin's residents are known for their warm sense of hospitality, even when their city was overrun by drug gangs in the 1980s and '90s. In the early aughts, as the gang wars eased, the city made a comeback by focusing on education and cultural initiatives in a push for renewed civic values. It's a goal that Mayor Federico Gutierrez referred to prior to Wednesday's ceremony.
“We can't let people lose their sense of solidarity,” he said at a press conference. “Today we will throw our support behind Chapeco.”
The memorial ceremony started with both countries' national anthems. The crowd, which often jeers during the opposing team's anthem, remained respectfully silent during Brazil's anthem, which was performed by a military orchestra.
An announcer made a brief speech about Atletico Chapecoense's history, its hometown in southern Brazil, and its rapid rise to soccer greatness in South America. Then funerary wreaths were presented to the club by a dozen Colombians institutions, from the police to the Atletico Nacional soccer club.
Throughout much of the event, Nacional fans chanted a song that they had apparently written for the Brazilian team, which is now being called the “eternal” champs.
Brazil's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jose Serra, made a brief speech and was brought to tears by the outpouring of solidarity from the Colombian fans.
The loudest chanting of the evening came from the southern stand of the stadium, which is an area that is usually reserved for Nacional's rowdiest and most die-hard fan group. The city has seen its share of soccer-related violence over the years, and until recently fans from Medellin's two biggest rival clubs, Nacional and DIM, were prohibited from attending the same matches. But last night was a very different scene.
“We have fans from several teams here today,” said Uriel Osorio, a man in his sixties who held a large Chapecoense banner. “I hope that fans continue to coexist in peace in the future as they did today.”
The southern stand also tends to be the most colorful area of the stadium during Nacional matches. It did not disappoint on Wednesday night with fans carrying large green-and-white banners with messages like “Soccer knows no boundaries,” and “We are all Chapecoense.”
Thousands of people brought white flowers to the stadium and threw them onto the field as the memorial ceremony ended. Other placed their flowers in front of several smaller memorials outside the stadium, which were carpeted with candles.
At the end of the ceremony a group of kids in Nacional uniforms released white balloons into the air, one for each Chapecoense player who had died in the crash.
As the crowd emptied the stadium, journalists huddled around the mayor of Chapeco, who came to Medellin to help repatriate the bodies. A woman in white waited for the journalists to leave then presented the mayor with a full-size replica of a baby jesus statue that sits in the town of La Ceja, an hour outside Medellin and the closest town to the crash site.
“It's a symbol of faith and hope,” she said. “We want them to have faith in their recovery.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.