Chapecoense: Fresh hope, but a tough 2017 awaits new faces

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An astonishing rise was tragically stopped in its tracks when disaster struck Chapecoense last November.

Chape surged from the Brazilian fourth tier to the top flight and a first continental final in the space of seven years, but the plane carrying the squad, coaches and directors to Medellin for the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional crashed, killing 71 people. The death toll included 19 players and coach Caio Junior.

A huge rebuild has since occurred with over 20 new arrivals and Vagner Mancini appointed as coach. The swiftly assembled team's first outing came in an emotionally charged friendly against Brazilian champions Palmeiras on Saturday.

A tribute to those who lost their lives was held prior to kick-off, with the loved ones of the deceased invited onto the Arena Conda pitch as part of the commemorations. Along with the three surviving players, Alan Ruschel, Jackson Follmann and Neto, they were presented with the Sudamericana trophy awarded to them by CONMEBOL at the request of the altruistic Atletico Nacional.

A teary-eyed Follmann told TV Globo: "It's a great emotion to be here. This is where we used to play and train, and now there's a beautiful tribute like this. There's no holding back the tears. There's no explanation for this feeling."

It was apt that the first goal of Chape's new era was scored by a player who took his first steps in professional football with the club in Douglas Grolli. The 27-year-old Santa Catarina native has returned on loan from Cruzeiro and sparked touching scenes with his goal in the 2-2 draw.

É O PRIMEIRO!! Confira o primeiro gol da Nova Chape! Grolli é o nome dele! #VamosChape

Posted by Associação Chapecoense de Futebol on Saturday, 21 January 2017

The club is back in competitive action against state rivals Joinville in the Primeira Liga on Thursday - the start of what will be a hectic and heavily congested year for a band of players corralled together within the space of two months.

Chape face the daunting prospect of participating in seven competitions throughout 2017; the Primeira Liga, Santa Catarina's state championship the Campeonato Catarinense, the Campeonato Brasileiro, the Copa do Brasil, the Copa Libertadores, the Recopa Sudamericana and the Suruga Bank Championship.

Granted, the Recopa Sudamericana will only consist of a home and away leg against Libertadores champions and now lifelong friends Atletico Nacional, while Chape are reportedly hoping to hand their place in the Suruga Bank Championship - an annual meeting between the Copa Sudamericana winners and the J.League Cup victors - to the Colombian side. The hope being that it will avoid a clash with an invitation from Barcelona to take part in the Joan Gamper Trophy.

But Brazilian clubs, in particular the elite sides who regularly compete on the continent, are no strangers to packed fixture lists.

The state championships are the result of a bygone era that made traversing such a vast country exceptionally difficult, but the representation of local governing bodies within the ruling Confederation of Brazilian Football (CBF) has seen them remain on the calendar - helping smaller clubs in each region stay afloat. These tournaments coincide with the group stage of the Libertadores, which is naturally the focus and often results in reserves and youth players featuring domestically.

In a bid by some clubs to challenge the establishment and seize control, the controversial Primeira Liga was set up in 2016. The aim was to provide bigger teams from some of the southern states - like Flamengo, Fluminense, Atletico Mineiro, Cruzeiro, Gremio and Internacional - a higher level of competition at the start of the year.

The idea was met with resistance at the CBF and rather than being a breakaway it has been added to the existing calendar and spreads teams even thinner. The quality of the competition is thus determined by the priorities of others. And this is all before the Brasileiro kicks off in May.

A change in the Copa Libertadores scheduling for 2017 will see the tournament run until November rather than July or August, lightening the load in the first half of the year, but competing on all fronts is an immense challenge for any club, let alone one in Chape's circumstances.

A huge boost will be the performance of the youth team at this year's prestigious annual Copa Sao Paulo, a tournament pitting 120 under-20 sides from clubs across the country against one another. Chape understandably garnered support from neutral fans and produced their best performance in the competition, reaching the quarter-finals before a 1-0 defeat to Paulista, who were disqualified ahead of the final for fielding an ineligible player.

The financial benefits of competing in the continent's premier tournament will be significant, too, while a friendly between Brazil and Colombia at Estadio Nilton Santos on Wednesday raised US$1.2million in broadcasting revenue that the CBF will donate to the club.

The task facing Chape this year is colossal, but the response to the tragedy showed that whatever the outcome, they can rely on the backing of the global football community to ensure they retain the position they have worked so hard to achieve.