There are few things more distressing than losing a member of the family.
Football fans, by definition, are pitted against one another from a young age. The pride we feel in our clubs, the thrill of seeing them compete against and beat rivals is unparalelled anywhere else in life and a big part of that joy comes from getting one over on the opposition, whether it’s the irritating outfit from across town or the international heavyweights we never stood a chance of beating.
The strength of our bond is rarely acknowledged during the good times. Why would it be? We define ourselves by our colours, our birth right and years of living history. That intoxicating first visit to the ground, the smell of the grass, the sound of the ball off the foot, the atmosphere, our mother or father’s hand enclosing ours and the sense of security that infuses all our memories as we develop.
Things are different in the bad times. When a minority of individuals believe it’s their responsibility to defend the honour of their club and not the players, the resulting violence is condemned by the world and we are all condemned with it. When systems and infrastructure are manipulated to enable abuse by a few, it’s not systems and infrastructure that are blamed. It’s the game itself.
When a group of people on the crest of a wave die in what appears to have been a wholly preventable disaster, we are all crushed because while the world defines us by our differences, our shirts, our banners and our habits, we know we’re all forged from the same material. Whether you were born in the barrios or in the back end of Birmingham, the lights going out over your ground means the same thing.
On Monday night, that happened to Chapecoense. And as we watch footage of the club’s players excitedly boarding a plane, uploading last words to social media and in the case of Tiago da Rocha Vieira Alves, receiving the news he’s about to be a father, there’s nothing to do but feel the pain and imagine how easy it would be to let it overwhelm us. To wonder how that club can possibly recover from such a cruel blow.
Thankfully, we have football. The family whose arms encircle the wounded and protect them as they would their own. Atletico Nacional requesting that the Copa Sudamericana title be awarded to Chapecoense as a tribute. Fans of all clubs gathering at their grounds to pay their respects. Rumours of players including Ronaldinho and Juan Roman Riquelme offering to play for the club to raise money for the future and ensure the club doesn’t become a tragic footnote in football history.
Now is not the time to articulate the positive to those directly affected by this tragedy. They need to grieve and deal with the fallout. Our job is to stand with them until they can stand alone, as they would alongside us and know this.
FIFA financial impropriety, the abuse scandal about to engulf English football, terrace violence, fighting in the streets, racism and homophobia have all come to characterise our game in recent months. If there’s any light to be found in this darkness, it’s that we know what football means. And why we love it so much.