Sports inevitably evoke strong emotions in just about everybody, from the old men happy to die at their neighborhood bar debating “MJ vs. LeBron” to the seemingly apathetic crowd who still shout “Sportsball” whenever they glimpse a jersey on a TV. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, if you live in the United States, it would be hard to argue that sports is not indelibly woven into our cultural fabric.
Often, though, the binding agent is money, from the behemoth business of sports teams to the advertising orgy of the Super Bowl. Sometimes, as with the case of the NFL and kneeling, sports can become a political cause. On the rare occasion, though, sports can be transcendent. This is especially true in a time of tragedy and healing. David Ortiz’s famous rallying cry of “This is our fucking city” helped galvanize the city of Boston after the marathon bombing. George W. Bush’s perfect first pitch symbolized the resiliency of a repairing nation after 9/11.
In other countries, sports always exist on this transcendent plane. In Latin America, soccer isn’t just a pastime—it’s a way of life. The stadium is the soul of the city, and the players are its champions. Although Argentina and Colombia might want to have a word, this is perhaps most true of Brazil, or “o País do Futebol”—the Country of Football.
The tragedy of Chapecoense
Chapecoense is a small football club located in Chapecó, a relatively provincial city by Brazilian standards with a population of just 200,000. For much of its history, Chapecoense languished in Brazil’s Serie B league—think the minor leagues—but advanced to the top division in 2014. Two years later, the team reached the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s second-most prestigious tournament—a seismic upset that gripped the city of Chapecó and the entire nation of Brazil.
On the way to the first leg of the finals in Colombia, the plane carrying the Chapecoense team along with coaches, journalists, and crew crashed in the mountains outside of Medellín. 71 of the 77 people on board died, including all but three of the players.
The filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, well-known for their ESPN “30 for 30” entry The Two Escobars, were contacted by Fox, who lost journalists on the flight, with the idea of making a documentary about the rebuilding process of the team and the community following the crash. The result is the stunning Nossa Chape, a raw and gripping portrait of tragedy and sports.
Starting from the ground up
The Zimbalist brothers were able to get unfettered access to the club and the families of the deceased, and the result is a powerful account of the diverging paths of a tragedy.What we see on the news after a tragedy is the cohesion—the community coming together to collectively lift itself up with candlelight vigils, speeches, and rallies. The coverage often ends at that point. Rather than a hagiography of a grieving team and city, Nossa Chape includes all of the human, often unflattering truths of the recovery process.
The directors do not portray these conflicts dispassionately, but with an objective, deft touch that honors the impossible position of many of the parties involved. Soon after the tragedy, the team’s administration makes the decision to rebuild the team immediately, with universal support. Soon, though, the cracks begin to appear. A top coach and elite players volunteer to join the team, but saddled by the weight of tragedy, they struggle as the season begins. The fanbase—perhaps funneling their emotions into the game, perhaps just reverting to being ornery fans—begin demanding better results.
The coach decides to emphasize a new start rather than constantly honoring the fallen team. While this begins to see some success, it runs afoul of some of the lasting coaching staff and players. In a particularly heart-breaking turn, this includes one of the few players who was not on the plane at the time of the crash because he hadn’t been selected to join the team for the Copa Sudamericana tournament.
Soccer isn’t just a game
The three players who miraculously survived the crash also suffer—not just from guilt and loss, but from the increasing tendency of the team’s administrations to use them as mascots and promotional material. The wives of the deceased feel the same burden, and question why the administration is using their husbands’ memories to drive attention to the team, but reneging on the financial support of their families.
There is no villain in the film though—not the fans, not the administration, and not even the opponents that Chapecoense was supposed to be facing in the finals. When a sport is such a fundamental aspect of a society, no competing interest or individual is self-evidently correct. Winning is as important as staying financially solvent is as important as psychologically supporting a community. A tragedy only heightens these dynamics, and Nossa Chape does a phenomenal job of painting these interests in a non-judgmental and nuanced manner.
As we approach the World Cup, even if you fall into the “Sportsball” camp, remember that each score you see represents an almost infinite number of narratives, emotions, hopes, and defeats. Nossa Chape is a perfect primer on why soccer isn’t just a game.
Note: Check out an interview with Nossa Chape directors Michael and Jeff Zimbalist on Cinema Escapist here.
Nossa Chape—Brazil/United States. Directed by Michael and Jeff Zimbalist. Released June 2018. Running time 1hr 41min.
Nossa Chape is now showing in theaters across North America.