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A Complicated Kind of Sadness: Public Mourning in a Globalised Game

Nico Restrepo untangles the tricky aspect of collective mourning within football in the wake of the Chapecoense air disaster.

This week Atlético Nacional and Chapecoense are set to play the first leg of the South American ‘Supercup’, a fixture that matches the winners of the Copa Sudamericana with the Libertadores title holders. This is the first time the teams have met since the tragedy that took place last November in which all but three of the Chapecoense players lost their lives. That Chapecoense team were heading to Medellín to compete with Nacional in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. They would never arrive—their plane crashed while it was on its descent into José María Córdova International Airport.

In the wake of the disaster, a number of impromptu acts of solidary were orchestrated by various people connected with Atlético Nacional. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first meeting between the two clubs since the tragedy has given way to another wave of displays of solidarity. The Brazilian city of Chapeco is said to be preparing a massive event, designed to honour both the victims and to thank those who have joined in mourning them. Posters conveying messages of gratitude and fraternity currently adorn the city; one of them, even proclaims Nacional as the ‘world champion of respect and solidarity’.

Although some of the language does appear to be exaggerated, it is impossible to deny that the acts of solidarity displayed in Medellín last year were deeply moving. People came together in that humbling and unassuming way in which people do almost exclusively in the aftermath of horrific events. The club reacted immediately and gracefully; a memorial event was set to take place at the time during which the match would have been played. The scene was awe inspiring: the Atanasio Girardot stadium was packed with mourners dressed in white, holding candles and singing in remembrance of those lost in the fatal crash. At the same time, back in Brazil, Chapecoense’s stadium was also jammed with fans honouring the unlikely heroes who, through grit and passion, had reached the summit of South American football. A sort of forced fraternity was, then, forged–brought about by unforeseen disaster but embraced by all with a heartfelt unanimity. In the midst of an incredibly difficult situation, the Colombian club provided overwhelming support and companionship giving rise– perhaps deservedly–to such lofty accolades.

As an Atletico Nacional fan, I followed the events obsessively, dumfounded and unaware how to act. At first, I was proud of my club and the fans; solidarity was offered tactfully and empathically. As events progressed, however, I have to admit that I became uneasy with the whole proceedings. Politicians took advantage of the spotlight to give speeches that were more self-congratulatory than compassionate; the displays of public grief extended to the point of seeming insincere; it was difficult to distinguish honest demonstrations of empathy from self-serving branding efforts.

On social media, it was rumoured that the sales of Nacional shirts in Brazil had skyrocketed. The Colombian team was set to play the Club World Cup two weeks after the tragedy and some fellow fans assured me that we had earned the support of the entirety of Brazil. This exercise in public mourning was beginning to look to me more like a publicity stunt than a heartfelt expression of grief and solidarity. A few weeks ago, for instance, I was told that a Chapecoense Bar was opened in Medellín; the venue is allegedly decorated with pictures of those lost in the accident as well as with a replica of the crashed plane. This is, of course, an over-the-top example of kitsch profiteering that does not encapsulate the way in which the tragedy was dealt with for the most part but it began raising questions in my mind as to the appropriateness of what was happening.

Now at this point I want to emphasise that I am in no positing to dictate how people should mourn a tragedy of such magnitude. And in raising this question, I don’t mean to belittle honest efforts to convey solidarity. In fact, what I want to argue is that public mourning in football is never an uncomplicated social affair and that the Chapecoense tragedy is the latest illustration of this complexity. In many respects, mourning itself is seldom a neutral and straightforward ritual; it carries within itself a heavy weight of significance which implies a lot more than simply the honouring of those who are no longer with us. Our decision to mourn – or not to mourn – always denotes a particular viewpoint, a specific way of relating to the world and to the past. The inherent intricacy of public mourning, when put in the already heated context of football, gives way to controversies such as the England team’s battle to wear poppies during World Cup Qualifiers or Turkish fans booing commemorations of European tragedies.

Let’s the take the seemingly straightforward example of the minute of silence. Even the preferred public act of mourning for the past century is, in football, devilishly difficult to implement. Firstly, there is the question of what warrants a minute of silence. Suffice it to say here, the answer is not simple. Some fans might regard mourning as a political imposition; some might be dissatisfied with the honouring of certain tragedies over others; others might simply think that solemnity has no place in what is supposed to be merely entertainment. These contradictions manifest themselves in the form of heckling, booing, and obscenities, which, in turn, make it rather tricky to carry out the whole ordeal.

As a result, during the past few years, the minute of silence has been losing ground. Often, its duration has been halved in order to give hecklers a slimmer window within which to fit their insults. In some cases, it has been replaced by continuous applause, which – apart from having the handy advantage of drowning obscenities – allegedly celebrates the game as an expression of joy. Predictably, there are people who find this latter ritual less than solemn. Thus, even the most standard rite of public mourning, with which presumably all attendees are familiar, is a controversial and convoluted affair in football, tricky to organise and trickier still to perform. It seems that we are yet to find a consensus regarding how tragedy should be dealt with in the context of our sport. It is almost as if the logic of the game itself were hostile to exercises of public remembrance.

Allow me to get conjectural for a moment and speculate about the nature of this dissonance. Romantics and lovers of the one-liners of Camus hardly miss a chance to point out that we love football because it is a re-enactment of life itself. Smug anthropologists, nonetheless, would counter by saying that we are so attracted to the game – and indeed games in general – precisely because it is unlike our daily realities. Here’s a ninety-minute window during which the playing field is even, the conditions equal, and the rules logical; here’s our attempt to fend off uncertainty, to get as close as we can to the intangible promise of meritocracy. Then death creeps in and reminds us that that football is firmly rooted within an arbitrary world.

Mourning in football, then, creates a moment of disruption, a liminal space where we are forced to renegotiate the way in which we understand the game’s relationship with the outside world. Perhaps that is why it is such a challenging subject: precisely because it lays bare the inherent tensions that exist between football and the extrinsic forces that surround – and partly constitute – it. This has seldom been more apparent than during the events that unfolded after the Chapecoense tragedy.

In my opinion, the response to the disaster shone light upon two themes that are already heavily discussed within football punditry: the global reach of the modern game and its ever-growing commercial dimension. Football’s global scope allowed a previously unthinkable number of people, from all over the world, to join in solidarity with the Brazilian team. Fundraisers were organised in different continents; youtubers sported Chapecoense paraphernalia in the backgrounds of their videos; and #ForçaChape trended internationally. In the specific case of Atlético Nacional, social media allowed fans to communicate directly, thus strengthening the bond that was already being crafted.

However, precisely because of how firmly entrenched commercialism is within the game – precisely because of the huge roles that publicity and exposure play in modern football – it was difficult not to appear self-serving and insincere. Honest messages of heartfelt support were inevitably embedded in those same mercantile networks that thrive on attention and long for brand-recognition. To go even further: commercial transactions were in themselves seen as a legitimate way to express grief. Sales of Chapecoense merchandise grew exponentially and, nowadays, bootlegged shirts are available all over South America.

I do not mean to argue that sporting that green top or tweeting in solidarity are not valid ways to respond to the disaster. What I am proposing is an acceptance that we need to understand these actions against the backdrop of a game that is also a monumental commercial complex and ask whether they can still serve as legitimate vehicles to convey solemn camaraderie. If public mourning in football is already a complex issue, the tragedy in question exposed just how the commercial and global aspects of the game have fundamentally expanded this intricacy, allowing for wider networks of solidarity but casting doubt over the possibility of sincere expressions of grief.

Unsurprisingly, I offer no solutions, I don’t come armed with any silver bullets. These are merely the ramblings of a fan who is trying to understand how to navigate troublesome waters; the article will have accomplished its goal if it steers the reader’s attention towards the complexity of public morning in the contemporary game. More than before, we need to be vigilant and discerning. We need to re-examine the question of how to deal with tragedy in a context that does not lend itself very well for the task. The aftermath of this horrible tragedy illuminated just how difficult it is to conduct public displays of solemnity when every appearance on international television serves as an advertisement.

I don’t think, however, that all attempts are futile. After all, we still have the game: our very own effort to stick the tongue out to all the shit that happen in the world, ninety minutes at a time. And, let me put it to you, that’s where the real honouring should happen. For me, then, the ideal homage to those who lost their lives in November would be that the match this week can mirror the passion with which they used to play, to channel the joy that drew them – and all of us – into this ridiculous obsession. My earnest desire is that the spectacle on the pitch suffices: that it manages to overshadow whatever else happens beyond it.


Nico Restrepo is a sociologist in Bogotá, Colombia and a life-long supporter of Atlético Nacional. He is also a one-time member (much missed) of the Team of John O’Sheas, appearing regularly on the podcast while he was studying at Cambridge University. He can be found tweeting @NicolasRestrep4.




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