Tragic Chapecoense back to international action

Esteban ROJAS
Chapecoense had to rebuild virtually from scratch after the crash killed 19 of their players and staff in November 2016

Brazilian football team Chapecoense landed in Venezuela on Monday ahead of their first international fixture since a plane crash wiped out their team.

The side had to rebuild virtually from scratch after the crash killed 19 of their players and staff in November, turning a fairytale rise into a nightmare.

The disaster destroyed a team that had surged in seven years from Brazil's fourth division to the final of the Copa Sudamericana regional tournament.

Now with 22 newly signed players, they return to face Venezuelan side Zulia in the group stage of Latin America's top club competition, the Copa Libertadores.

"We are going to give our utmost to make our companions in heaven proud of us," said Chapecoense's new striker Tulio de Melo, 34.

"We have great ambitions. We are going to try to get as far as possible."

He spoke to reporters on arrival in Zulia's northwestern home city, Maracaibo.

Local fans took pictures of the visiting team with their mobile phones as the team left the airport.

- Emotional game -

The city of Maracaibo was busy preparing for the first international match in nearly a decade at its 40,000-seat Pachencho Romero stadium.

"We know that the eyes of the world are going to be on this match and everyone will be rooting for Chapecoense," Zulia's coach Daniel Farias told AFP.

"It is going to be a very emotional game."

The disaster cut short Chapecoense's dream as they flew to Colombia on November 28 to play against Atletico Nacional.

The crash in the Colombian mountains killed 71 people, including 19 of the team's players and numerous staff.

Three players survived -- winger Alan Ruschel, defender Helio Neto and goalkeeper Jackson Follmann, who had his right leg amputated.

Nine of the club's first-team players were not on the flight.

Of those, two are in the squad that traveled for Tuesday night's match: Moises Ribeiro and Nenen.

- Special match -

Chapecoense drew 2-2 on January 21 in a domestic friendly against Palmeiras, its first match since the tragedy.

Atletico Nacional ceded the Copa Sudamericana title to Chapecoense as a gesture of kindness after the disaster.

That gave Chapecoense automatic entry into the Copa Libertadores, as Copa Sudamericana title-holders.

For Zulia, the best way to show respect to Chapecoense was to play "a good match and for the best side to win," said Zulia goalkeeper Renny Vega.

"It is a special match because of the accident and the players that are sadly no longer with us," he said after training on Sunday.

"But that is another story. Once we are on the pitch what matters are the 90 minutes and the three points."