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Brazilian town grieves loss of Cinderella football team

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A fan of Chapecoense soccer team prays at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil, November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
A fan of Chapecoense soccer team prays at the Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, Brazil, November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

By Brad Haynes

CHAPECO, Brazil (Reuters) - Thousands of grieving fans in green and white filled the Chapecoense stadium in remote southern Brazil on Tuesday, singing their team's praises and chanting one by one the names of players who lost their lives in a plane crash a day earlier.

"We are champions!" they cried as club staff and relatives of the deceased joined hands in a circle at midfield, part of an impromptu ceremony that swung between mourning for the lives lost and pride in the unlikely feats of their fallen heroes.

Less than a week ago, the streets of this small farming city rang with cheers and firecrackers as the team punched its ticket to the final of the Sudamericana Cup, capping a fairy tale rise from Brazil's fourth division in 2009.

The excitement turned to tragedy late on Monday when the team's charter flight crashed near Medellin en route to the final against Colombia's Atletico Nacional, the biggest game in Chapecoense's history.

"We've passed from a dream into a nightmare," said metalworker Fernando de Oliveira, who left work to bring his crying wife and two children to the stadium in a show of support.

Businesses closed, schools cancelled classes and the mayor called off municipal Christmas celebrations as he declared 30 days of mourning. A sea of fans filled the streets outside a cathedral downtown for an evening mass before streaming down the road to the stadium.

The tragedy echoed throughout global football, but the scale of the loss was staggering in a city where it takes a 10th of the population to fill the small concrete stadium's 20,000 seats.

"This is a little city from the interior, but it felt like we grew along with our team," said Laura Zanotelli, 17, one of more than a hundred fans who gathered in the Chapacoense stands late into the afternoon, consoling each other and praying aloud.

"So many of our players are from here. I would run into them and their families in the street, like neighbours," she said.

Most of the team's players were among the 71 people killed in the crash, Colombian authorities said, as well as local journalists and team officials.

"Our idea is to hold a collective wake here in our beloved stadium because everyone wants to give their support, to give an embrace," said Ivan Tozzo, who became the team's acting president when his predecessor died in the crash.

Team Chairman Gelson Dalla Costa said the club's doctors were travelling to Medellín on Tuesday to collect the bodies.

Three Chapecoense players were among the six people who survived the crash. Dalla Costa said defender Helio Neto was undergoing cranial surgery and reserve goalkeeper Jackson Follmann had a leg amputated. Defender Alan Ruschel was reported in intensive care but in stable condition.

"As you know, in an accident of this scale you can get any kind of news in the first 48 hours," he added, regarding the health of the survivors.

An improvised shrine outside the player's entrance to the stadium filled up with jerseys, flowers and candles.

A poster celebrated, in a child's handwriting, Chapacoense's meteoric rise into top-flight Brazilian football: "They never tired of climbing and now they're in heaven."

(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)


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