Members of a Brazilian soccer club that lost most of its players in a plane crash on November 28, 2016, met with Pope Francis on Wednesday, during a trip to Rome for a charity match with local professional team AS Roma.
Chapecoense – from the city of Chapecó, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina – was flying to Medellín, Colombia, to play Atlético Nacional in the first leg of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana Finals when their plane crashed, killing 71 of 77 people on board. In a sign of solidarity, Atlético Nacional asked that the trophy be awarded to the Brazilian team.
The survivors included three players, two of whom – Jackson Follmann and Alan Ruschel – were among those to greet the pope on Wednesday.
Follmann, who lost part of his leg in the disaster and now serves as team ambassador, said ahead of the meeting it would be a “historic moment.”
After the tragedy, Francis asked for prayers for the team, and noted the similarity to the 1949 Superga air disaster, which killed 31 people, including the entire playing squad of Torino F.C., which competes in Italy’s Serie A.
The players presented the pontiff with a plaque thanking him for his prayers, as well as a team medal and signed soccer ball.
When the pope greeted the team in his Portuguese remarks, he said, “My desire for you is that you grow in the wisdom that comes from God, so that, having been made experts in the things of God, you might be able to communicate to others the sweetness of His love.”
The president of the club, Plínio David de Nês Filho, later told Vatican Radio he was grateful for the meeting.
“To receive his blessing – from a pope who has in his heart love, affection and dedication to people, a human being of unparalleled goodness, and a very open way of receiving people – and here he receives a soccer team that is rebuilding itself,” the team president said.
“We wanted nothing more than to say thank you, and make it a moment of prayer for all those who still have the opportunity to be alive and with us, and to be here on this day, which is a gift for all of us,” he said.
Pope Francis himself is legendarily a big soccer fan, cheering for the San Lorenzo squad in his native Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Chapecoense is in Rome for a charity match against A.S. Roma to raise funds for the Brazilian club. The game will be played at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on Friday.