How a Colombian plane crash devastated soccer fans and ex-pats in Toronto

The news that a plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team crashed in Colombia Tuesday had tragic reverberations in Toronto where ex-pats mourned the deaths at least 75 people, among them the young talent of the South American country's most popular sport.

'This brings pain to all soccer players,' Toronto FC midfielder Armando Cooper says

Marta Almeida, a former Brazilian journalist, said that she was in shock after learning that at least 10 of her former colleagues died in a Colombian plane crash Tuesday. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC News)

The news that a plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team crashed in Colombia has had tragic reverberations in Toronto where ex-pats mourned the deaths at least 75 people, among them the young talent of the South American country's most popular sport. 

Daniel De Stefani, 33, came to Toronto from his hometown of Criciuma, Brazil, three years ago and he continued to follow his favourite teams from here. 

Two years ago, he said he began following the rise of Chapecoense, after the soccer club made its way back into the top-tier of Brazil's professional league for the first time since 1979. Its members had been en route to play their biggest game yet when the plane crashed early Tuesday local time in Medellin, Colombia — about 250 kilometres northwest of Bogota. 

Rescue workers search at the wreckage site of a chartered airplane that crashed outside Medellin, Colombia on Tuesday. (Luis Benavides/Associated Press)

'I thought it wasn't real'

After watching his team play on Sunday, De Stefani said he couldn't accept what had happened when his girlfriend, Heidi Markiewicz, told him the news Tuesday morning. 

De Stefani seemed shocked by the news, his girlfriend said; he began yelling and, at first, he didn't believe her. 

"I thought it was a dream," he said in Portuguese, with Markiewicz acting as his interpreter. "I thought it wasn't real."

Three team members, two flight crew and a journalist are reported to have survived the crash, according to a statement from Colombia's civil aviation agency. 

"For Brazil it's a huge tragedy," De Stefani told CBC Toronto. 

Soccer players mourn

Players on Toronto's professional club, Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS), added their condolences to those rolling in from the international football community. 

Toronto FC midfielder Armando Cooper, who used to play on Panama's national team, said that his thoughts were with "his family" in the sports world.

Cooper didn't know any of the players killed in the crash, but said that he'd watched the Chapecoense team and felt a sense of connection to them. 

"This brings pain to all soccer players who have to take flights to different cities to play," Cooper told CBC Toronto in Spanish. "It leaves a sense of anguish, thinking this could also happen to them."

Toronto FC will face off against Montreal in Game 2 of the MLS Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday. The Toronto midfielder said he'll stay focused for the game, but said he hopes to see the league recognize the Brazilian team in some way at the match.

21 journalists on board

Brazilian news organizations reported Wednesday that 21 journalists had also been on board the plane to cover the game in Medellin. It would have been the first match of the Sudamericana final — that continent's equivalent of the Europa League.

Toronto journalist Marta Almeida began getting calls from her former colleagues in Brazil as news of the death toll spread Wednesday. Almeida used to work for TV Global in Brazil, which she said had at least 10 employees on the flight Tuesday. 

"As a journalist it's very sad, not only for the players and the other people — but also because we lost co-workers," she said. "I used to work in the same way as [those] people who died. Sometimes I'd travel to cover soccer players.

"In most cities [in South America] football is the main source of fun," she said. "I'm sure people there are devastated."

Three members of the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense are reported to have survived the crash, according to the Colombian civil aviation agency. (Andre Penner/Associated Press)

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie and Lorenda Reddekopp