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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Diego Forlan: Mourning former teammates and the Chapecoense footballers who died in crash

Like the rest of the world, I’m still stunned by the plane crash in Colombia. I knew three of the players as former teammates.
Diego Forlan played at various points with Cleber Santana, Josimar and Alan Ruschel. AP, AFP and Getty photos.
Diego Forlan played at various points with Cleber Santana, Josimar and Alan Ruschel. AP, AFP and Getty photos.

Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan’s column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

Like the rest of the world, I’m still stunned by the plane crash in Colombia. I knew three of the players as former teammates.

Footballers come across many other players in the course of their careers. It is an unusual occupation where you are really close to a group of teammates who you see every day, who you travel everywhere with and share ups and downs.

You see them more than your own family, you are encouraged to be friends, to grow a bond that will help you on and off the field.

Then one day they leave and you seldom see them again. You stay in touch with your closest friends, but it is hard to stay in touch with all of them.

Cleber was my teammate at Atletico Madrid. We signed for the club in the summer of 2007 and got on well. I would practise my Portuguese with him, a Brazilian who liked to joke. I saw him learn Spanish. We would go to barbecues. There was a good spirit in that team.

He was a very good footballer in a side of exceptionally talented players. We had another young South American, Sergio Aguero, as well as Simao and Maxi Rodriguez. Cleber was quick, tough and skilful — that is why Atletico had bought him from Santos. He could go one-on-one against a player, he could shoot from outside the box.

More on the crash

75 dead as Brazil mourns tragedy in Colombia

Chapecoense vow to play on to honour fallen teammates

• Editorial: Football unites in tragic times

Atletico could have done better for him, though. He played 23 of our 38 league games, but often as a substitute and he never seemed to get the five or six games in a row that he needed to get his confidence up. Every player has been through this, but he still contributed to a team that reached the Uefa Champions League for the first time in 12 years.

The following season, Cleber went on loan to Mallorca. He started every week but was absent when he played Atletico, meaning I did not have to worry about playing against him.

He was back when we met the second time in the season, one of the best players as Mallorca beat us 2-0.

He also scored in a win against champions Barcelona and in a victory at Real Madrid. He was a top-level footballer in one of the best leagues in the world.

Until this week, Cleber was the captain of Chapecoense, the master pulling the strings behind the strikers.

It was a happy time in his career playing for a team with an incredible story.

From a provincial Brazilian city, the team progressed from Serie D in 2009 to Serie A, an amazing rise to compete with the big-city giants from Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre.

Chapecoense were about to play their biggest game, the team spirit at an all-time high as they travelled to the final of the Copa Sudamericana in Medellin.

Along the way they had knocked out my old team Independiente and fellow Buenos Aires side San Lorenzo.

Not for nothing, were they compared to Leicester City, the team who showed that life can be full of beautiful surprises.

I feel so much for their families and friends of the air disaster, for the small city of Chapecoense, for the friends and families of the other passengers including the journalists who, like us, travel around the world to cover the game we love.

Josimar was another former teammate on the plane. We played together at Internacional in Porto Alegre. He was a shy, honest, respectful man from Pelotas near the Uruguayan border. So to me that meant he was almost like a compatriot.

He was playing for Inter, one of the biggest teams in southern Brazil. He was excellent – versatile and a master in tight spaces, he was one of the most important players for Chapecoense. I don’t like to judge people on a first impression, but my first impression of him never changed. He was an honest man I could trust.

I also played with Alan Ruschel, one of only six people to have survived the flight. I did not know Alan as well as Josimar or Cleber. I trained with him for a month before I moved to Japan in 2014. He was shy and new to the team – he had actually come from Chapecoense, and he went back there.

The reaction to the crash has been incredible: the colours of Chapecoense – the team from a small city most people outside of South America would never have heard of – displayed on the Eiffel Tower and Wembley Stadium. Amid the rivalries and the problems, football is capable of showing wonderful solidarity.

I applaud Atletico Nacional, the best team in South America in 2016 after they won the Copa Libertadores, for stating that the title should go to Chapecoense. My Penarol side lost twice against them in the group stage. They will play in the Club World Cup later this month in Japan. And I also applaud the Atletico fans who went to the stadium to pay their respects at the time when their team should have been playing Chapecoense.

And I applaud the significant number of Brazilian clubs and others offering their players to Chapecoense for next season – for free.

Like Torino and Manchester United, two great clubs who suffered air disasters of their own, Chapecoense cannot die.

They must go on in memory of those who have lost their lives and those currently fighting for theirs.

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