His full title is Jose Nivaldo Martins Constante, but as is the custom in Brazilian soccer, he is known by a single name— Nivaldo.
He is a 42-year-old goalkeeper, a handsome, athletic man, typically full of energy and humor, but whose face is drawn and eyes are bloodshot now. He hasn’t slept since the news came in, they say. Few in Chapeco have.
Nivaldo came to Chapecoense, the Brazilian soccer club had 19 team members die in an airplane crash Tuesday, a decade ago. He didn’t come for the money, not with the organization then mired in financial crisis. He wasn’t drawn in by the prospect of fame or prestige, not during a period when Chapecoense was rooted three divisions below the top level of Brazilian soccer.
He came for a chance. Nivaldo and Chapecoense rose together. The goalkeeper found confidence and authority as he moved through his 30s. He became a team leader, and his game flourished. The fans and his teammates loved him. Chapecoense made a fairy-tale ascent through the divisions, and Nivaldo was its ringleader. He pulled on the jersey for 299 games.
As of this season, Chapecoense was suddenly a contender, making waves in Brazil’s top division and embarking on an inspirational run to the final of the continental Copa Sudamericana tournament. They were on their way from a league match in Sao Paulo to the first leg of the final, against Atletico Nacional in Colombia, when the plane went down.
But Nivaldo was not on the flight. He had not been playing much of late, his age having caught up with him and a new, thrilling young keeper, Danilo, having taken over. Instead Nivaldo was told to stay home and rest up for a swansong match, his 300th appearance in the colors, that will now never happen.
“As there was a change in the trip, the team would not return to Chapeco and instead go straight from Sao Paulo to Medellin,” he told reporters Wednesday. “So Caio (the coach) said he would not take me.”
The tale of the goalkeepers of this club are a subplot in themselves in a story where the word tragedy barely suffices.
There was reserve keeper Marcelo Boeck, who was allowed to stay home instead of making the ill-fated trip so that he could enjoy his birthday celebration. There is Jackson Follmann, one of the few survivors, who underwent a leg amputation in the hours after the crash. And there was Danilo, the charismatic first choice and reluctant hero of this season’s dramatics, who initially survived but died of his injuries. Danilo’s final moments were spent uttering a few words, by telephone, to his wife.
It is all so sad that it is impossible to process. Perhaps at some point the video of players laughing and joking on cell phone video as the plane prepared for takeoff will provide fond memories instead of sending a chill through the bones.
It is a sense of haunting that can be seen and felt most starkly through the faces of those who, through some confluence of fate or circumstance, were not among those who perished.
And it was seen on the face of Nivaldo on Wednesday and he struggled to find the words to pay tribute to his fallen friends. He would play no longer, he said. Not without his brothers, not without those who lost.
“Everything has a reason in life,” he said, as he explained how it came about that he was not on the flight.
His is a burden that will be carried by the survivors and by those who did not travel, whether through injury or happenstance or, in one case, a forgotten passport. Quite rightly, there are no thoughts of soccer right now. Brazil’s league games have been cancelled this week and there is every chance that Chapecoense will not play for the rest of this season and be protected from relegation for three future campaigns.
But there will come a time when the team takes the field again amid a flood of emotion. Dealing with such things is not about strength or character, much as movies screenwriters would like to have us think. Survivor’s guilt is a brutal, overwhelming, crushing phenomenon. The more you loved, the more you hurt.
The bitter squeeze of heartache is a tortured tale that can be told in endless ways. Each of those who were lost, each player, coach, journalist or crewmember, had their own story. As the world remembers them so too must thoughts be spared for but for fate could have joined them. Those, like Nivaldo, whose story continues, albeit altered forever.