Chapecoense, Brazilian giants Fluminense, Vasco da Gama all mired in tight relegation fight
It is precisely two years since the Chapecoense plane crash, when almost the entire team and coaching staff of the little Brazilian club lost their lives.
In such circumstances, it seems crass in the extreme to state that Chapecoense are fighting for their first-division survival this weekend. Such metaphors lose all their meaning when measured against true tragedy.
Nevertheless, there is a connection. Because all of the emotion engendered by the disaster needs to be channelled somehow. And the most positive response that Chapecoense could give, the best way they could find to honour the memory of those who had died, was to give everything in the quest to remain in Brazil's first division.
Last year that task was achieved with such magnificence that the club even won the right to take part in the qualifying round of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. But the nature of their defeat, to Nacional of Uruguay last January and February, made it obvious that -- on the field at least -- 2018 was going to be more difficult than 2017.
This, perhaps, is inevitable. Firstly, last year there was a mobilisation in favour of Chapecoense. Other teams loaned them players -- who then returned to their respective sides at the end of the campaign, weakening the squad. Also, emotional energy is not a bottomless pit. A small-town club effectively starting from scratch can hardly be expected to compete with the giants forever. They have felt the pressure, and are currently on their third coach of the year.
And so, going into Sunday's final round of the Brazilian Championship, Chapecoense are looking over their shoulder. They are one point and one place clear of the relegation zone. They could be overtaken by two of the teams below them -- America and Sport. If either of these two finish above Chapecoense, the second division beckons. And a draw may not be good enough.
Chapecoense are at home to Sao Paulo, who currently lie fifth but want to finish a place higher, and make it into the group phase of the 2019 Libertadores. If scores finish level in the Arena Conda, then both America and Sport can leapfrog Chapecoense by winning their games. It promises, then, to be a tense afternoon.
And also involved in the tension are the two teams immediately above Chapecoense -- clubs at the other end of the historical contrast.
A small-town team from the south, Chapecoense were not founded until 1973, and have only been in the first division since 2014. Fluminense and Vasco da Gama, on the other hand, are giants from the former capital, Rio de Janeiro, and have claims as the most important clubs in the country during the early years of Brazilian football.
Fluminense are the fathers of it all. One of the first clubs to be founded in Brazil, they are traditionally associated with the Rio elite. Vasco, meanwhile, come from the other side of the tracks, and did much to spread the popularity of the game down the social scale in the 1920s.
Both have glorious traditions, but troubled presents. Vasco have already been relegated three times in the last 10 years. Mired in administrative crisis, a fourth visit to the second division is almost unthinkable; those who go down this year do not a TV deal as generous as in previous campaigns, meaning that the task of climbing back up will be harder. On Sunday Vasco are away to Ceara, and will hope that that opponents will take the foot off the pedal after ensuring their own safety last weekend.
The position of Fluminense may be even more precarious -- despite playing at home, in the Maracana stadium, in a relegation derby against America. Backed by a wealthy sponsor, Fluminense won the league in both 2010 and 2012. It was clear, though, that once they lost their benefactor, things would be more difficult -- and they have suddenly run into a wall.
Promising players have been sold, cut-price replacements brought in and youngsters promoted. It is a risky formula, but just a few weeks ago it appeared that the problems were merely financial, and not sporting. They were comfortably mid-table -- until the pressure kicked in. On Wednesday they lost 2-0 at home in the semifinal of the Copa Sudamericana -- adding to an extraordinary run of over 12 hours without scoring a single goal. A big crowd ended up hindering more than helping -- and more jeers can be expected on Sunday if the team make a bad start.
Going into the final round, then, the biggest hope of traditional giants Fluminense and Vasco da Gama is for little Chapecoense to stumble at home to Sao Paulo.