VICE Sports Q&A with Rui Costa: The Man Rebuilding Chapecoense After the Tragedy

In November, 71 members of the Chapecoense soccer club died in a plane crash. Director of football Rui Costa is tasked with putting the team back together again.

by Raphael Gellar and Chris Goldenbaum
Jan 25 2017, 7:09pm

WikiMedia Commons

In late November, a chartered plane carrying 77 members of the Brazilian-based Chapecoense soccer team crashed into a mountain range near Medellín, Colombia. Only six people onboard survived—only three players—from a team that was en route to play in the finals of the Copa Sudamerica. The tragedy sparked a series of tributes from around the world. This week, a newly rebuilt Chapecoense team played its first competitive game since the tragedy. VICE Sports spoke with Chapecoense's director of football Rui Costa about the process of getting the team back on the field. (Editor's note: This interview was conducted in Portuguese and translated into English.)

VICE Sports: What is your connection with Chapecoense at this point?

RUI COSTA: I began to work at Chapecoense as Director of Football in December. More than a new professional opportunity, I understood this moment almost as a gift. Everyone—whether it was football aficionados, regular fans—was shocked about the tragedy with Chapecoense. I understood that whoever had the privilege of rebuilding this history, would face a monumental and life-altering challenge. And the Man up there wished that only 72 hours after ending one part of my professional life (Costa previously worked at Gremio for 4 years) I was invited by other directors for an hour long talk that concluded with my dream becoming a reality. It was something that touched me profoundly. Not only the professional experience, of course, but to be here in this moment. I think that who is here [at Chapecoense] today has much more than a contractual commitment, but a personal one, a life one, a spiritual one. Which motivates us a lot, gives us a lot of energy, and even though we are physically tired, we are invigorated when we see people working here that have been through almost unbearable losses, but are still actively trying to help reshape this story. So it's the biggest challenge of my life as a professional, it's the biggest challenge of my life as a human being, the biggest challenge of my life as a family man—it affects my whole family. There is a very strong feeling of support, of generosity among people that affects one's family as well. I brought my family here, to live with me here, to belong to this community; because this is a team needs 100 percent of your attention. I feel blessed to be here.

When you left Gremio, many elite clubs in Brazil were interested in you. Would you say you chose Chapecoense mainly because of the emotional challenge?

RUI: No, I'd say that Chapecoense chose me. Perhaps that's the main source of pride that I have. I indeed had teams interested in me. I received calls from other clubs the first time I was here even. But I felt strongly that the choice to be here had to be respected. Beyond financial considerations, way beyond my salary—of course, I'm a professional and my financial matters are important—but the combined value that I was bringing to the club meant everything to me as a professional, as a human being, as a man. I would get to participate in a process completely unique in the history of football. Football teams have faced other tragedies, but not like this one. And that transcends a mere contract. That's why when the club chose me, I didn't have to think twice. I had to be here with all the energy, all the strength, together with my workmates, because rebuilding the history of this club, of the football department of this club, is a collective effort. Of course, given the circumstances I'm more of a protagonist because I'm in charge of all football things. But I wouldn't be able to achieve anything without the help of my colleagues, without the support of everybody that works here. You noticed already how the club works in a familiar style.

How is this a unique process from what you've experienced?

RUI: It's something that occupies all your energy, and all your professional capacity. You have to use your best self in your ability to negotiate, your best self in the ability to adapt, your best self how you're perceived in this environment. Because arriving in this club like I did, coming from outside, coming from another reality and I was tasked with making changes in the structure of the club from the point of view of signing new players, new professionals, without disrupting the important people who were already here, both athletes and staff. One has to be connected with everything that happens, one needs a very sharp sensitivity not to overstep the limits of what's acceptable, but at the same time not to waste time. So I feel today that I'm full force at my professional capability and in a very generous environment with very little vanity. Football is an environment of a lot of vanity and little generosity. But here it's the opposite. This is a Herculean task, perhaps the biggest challenge for any executive in the world, of rebuilding not only a football team, but entire football department. Doctors, physiotherapists, masseuse, kit man, physiologist, they are all gone. So not only did we have to bring in 20, 25 players, we had to bring in new professionals that will need to get themselves acclimated in this environment. Whether we can get all of these new people together to form a cohesive team is unknown at this point.

When you approach new players, do you feel they react differently as a result of the tragedy?

RUI: I would say that there are several cases, several situations. What I can guarantee to you and to those who will read this is that the ones that are here wanted to be here and were chosen to be here. I mean, if they came here it's because they believed in what we were doing, because they saw that Chapecoense was a great club, because they saw the opportunity to play in the [Copa] Libertadores while wearing the now most desired jersey in the world. Everywhere I go people ask me for a shirt. People want to wear white and green because that become an international thing. Because there are such strong feelings, and what wearing that jersey represents, the players that are here made both a personal, an emotional, and a professional choice.

While you are dealing with this unique situation, there are clubs around the world that are able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to sign players. What have you learned from this experience?

RUI: The great lesson that I've learned is that it's possible to put together a high level football team while acting fiscally responsible. Of course it is much harder to compete with the wealthy teams around the world. But I believe that our great challenge is to transform the legacy left by those that were here before. Time is shorter now, Chape would have become an internationally known team for other reasons if it wasn't for the tragedy. Now, what happened that growth has happened much faster. So now the challenge is to use this global attention Chape has today to make the club structurally sound, and to build the brand. If we manage to do that, with all the financial difficulties that we have and with an eye toward our budget, like the club has always had, I believe we'll be a great example to the world football. Now, of course it is difficult to compete even with the big powers here in Brazil, who have budgets of 300, 400 million. But we've faced that anyway, and the proof is that Chape made it to the finals of the Sudamericana Cup against big teams. And if it wasn't for what happened, we could have won a historical title. It's tough to be a football club with limited resources, but even before my arrival Chape already showed that it is possible.

Has the club received any financial assistance?

RUI: When it comes to football, which is what I can talk about, Chape is self-sustaining. We have our limitations. We certainly are under unusual circumstances because one can't sign 20, 25 players, or hire 8, 9 professionals, if you don't have a different budget. It's completely different to sign 5 players to add to the roster than signing a whole new roster. You need more margin of investment. But Chape's executive staff, team president Plínio [David De Nes Filho] and his VPs, are bringing us the resources to do that, through the same strategy that they were using before. In regards to future financial support, there are several possible scenarios but right now Chape is focused only on what we have available to us.

With so much international attention, all those jerseys being sold, all the marketing of the team, was there an increase in profits?

RUI: It's not really my area, but there was definitely a significant increase in revenue. It is evident that the brand Chapecoense is completely different today than what it was before, and that adds a lot of value to the weight of the brand. We have become a global brand. And that will have significant consequences for the club.

There are so many problems in soccer today, including all the issues FIFA has faced in regards to corruption. Can this tragedy and its legacy bring change to soccer?

RUI: This tragedy seemed to affect everyone, especially those who work in football. I mean, you turn on the tv and see the Eiffel Tower in green, you see the moments of silence actually being respected, including in Brazil where a moment of silence doesn't even usually last one minute. I've never seen anything like it, and at the same time, to see what Atletico Nacional (the team that was supposed to play the final against Chapecoense, and later offered the title to them) did, their fans did, the love, everything. I think that we have to believe that there are still worthwhile things in this game, that football can still be the same football that inspired us to learn how to kick a football, that puts tears in our eyes when our team wins, that special thing that makes parents take their kids to the stadium to become fans. Those things sometimes become overshadowed because of the business side, because of the the violence you still see, the politicalization of football, which is very strong. When something like this happens, the loss of 71 people that had a dream, that were on the highest levels of their careers, that gives us some hope that football can help mobilize people toward generosity and solidarity. Not out of pity, but out of understanding that football is much more than a business, much more than channel disputes and fan fights. And understanding that football is something that can compel people from the most random places on earth to hold moments of silence and to wear different jerseys. That's what makes us reflect that there's a lot we can still do. There is space in the world, in sports, that allows us to be competitive without being an asshole; to be competitive without being dishonest; to be competitive without trying to conquer everything at any cost. No! There is room for ethics in football.

If in 10 years you wrote a book about your current experiences, what would be some of the main points you'd write about?

RUI: Oh, that's a big book! A lot, a lot. First, I'd talk about the gift of being here. Second, about what I learn everyday here. This lady here (Costa points to Sirli Freitas, a member of Chape's communication staff who lost her husband, journalist Cléberson Silva in the tragedy), a beautiful woman, is filled with life. She lost her husband at such a young age. And she's here, working every day. Sometimes I walk in here and she is crying. Why? Because she hasn't dealt with the loss yet. She sees me coming in here, she sees someone else sitting in the chair that used to belong to her husband, and she's here every day, working, worried about assisting you in every way possible. And this is the same for many people here, and that must be told. So you can imagine when this stadium will be full again. For those who are here, this will be a story for the rest of our lives. I don't know how long I will be here. Six months, a year, two years, but I've been here. Being here at this moment is the most gratifying thing there is, it is something that definitely deserves many chapters. I think that the most important part of this story is to look to the future, to look ahead. Today someone sent me a quote from a film that has a very similar story as to what happened here, and at some point the character says, "Look, the grief is over". Now, from the ashes, we will make history. We have to respect those that perished, they are part of the club for the rest of our lives. But on the 26th (first game of the season), shit is going to get serious here. People will come here to get their asses kicked. We will win and be strong and people will say "look, it's impossible to play at Arena Condá", like I used to say as an opposing coach. And then we'd get our asses kicked. The best legacy we can leave is to look to the future and make everything that has happened in the past matter.