RIO DE JANEIRO－When Alan Ruschel returned to the city of Chapeco in January 2020, he knew the year ahead would be difficult.
But not even the veteran leftback could have imagined the challenges awaiting Chapecoense－the club from southern Brazil that knows all about adversity following a 2016 plane crash in Colombia that killed most of its players and coaching staff.
First came the firing of head coach Hemerson Maria, who was replaced by Umberto Louzer in mid-February, after a poor start to the 2020 season. A month later, all soccer competitions in Brazil began a hiatus that lasted nearly four months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
All the while, Ruschel－one of only six survivors of the aviation tragedy that claimed 71 lives－and most of his teammates had to contend with receiving only a part of their salary due to the club’s dire financial plight.
But the biggest blow came in December when Chapecoense president Paulo Magro died due to complications from COVID-19.
Despite these setbacks, Chape－as the club is affectionately known by fans－secured its return to Brazil’s top flight on Jan 12 with a 2-1 home victory over Figueirense. On Jan 30, Chape capped its stunning season by winning the second-division title thanks to a 3-1 victory over Confianca.
“It’s been a year of great struggle, commitment and responsibility,” Ruschel, 31, said in an interview published on the official website of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF).
“The group understood the identity and essence of Chapecoense and pursued a single objective. We left aside the countless difficulties that appeared and set a bigger goal that was to create history by returning Chape to Serie A. There was no vanity here and there was no tension inside the dressing room, which ensured that we were united, strong and happy,” added Ruschel, who is the only crash survivor that is still playing.
Chapecoense’s successful season shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the club’s experience in overcoming hardships.
Following the air disaster, the CBF offered Chape a deal that would have protected it from relegation for the ensuing three years, regardless of where it finished in the standings.
Club directors declined the proposal, however, saying they did not want to receive preferential treatment.
Despite having to rebuild its squad from almost scratch in 2017, Chape somehow managed to qualify for the following year’s Copa Libertadores－South America’s top club competition.
Chape also fielded a competitive team in 2018, but its impressive run ended in November 2019 when it was relegated to Serie B amid a crippling financial crisis and internal upheaval.
Magro, who took over as president in the weeks before Chapecoense’s demotion, immediately sought to restore morale－both in the dressing room and among fans.
One of his first moves was to recall Ruschel from a loan spell with rivals Goias and appoint him the first-team captain.
Almost simultaneously, Magro named former defender Helio Neto, also a survivor of the doomed LaMia charter flight, as the club’s football director.
“I had a very frank conversation with Paulo when I returned to Chape, and he told me about the situation the club was in,” said Ruschel, who spent more than two weeks in hospital following the accident and underwent back surgery before returning to the pitch nine months later.
“He said that I would be a leader of the squad, that he would depend on me for the restructuring and I committed myself together with him and Neto. It was tough in the beginning … but we learned to deal with adverse situations, mainly with the salary.
“Along with me there were other experienced guys like Joao Ricardo, Anselmo Ramon and Anderson Leite who also understood the essence of the club and played important roles.”
Meanwhile, reports in Brazil have linked Ruschel with a move to rival Cruzeiro.
The 31-year-old has agreed to financial terms of a two-year contract and is expected to be confirmed as a Cruzeiro player following a medical next week, the Globo News portal said on Thursday.
Cruzeiro, also relegated in 2019, finished 11th in Serie B this season, meaning it will remain in Brazilian soccer’s second tier in 2021.
Ruschel has made 61 first-team appearances for Chape in three separate spells with the club since 2013.