CHAPECO, BRAZIL —
For soccer striker Alejandro Martinuccio, the surgery on his right knee two months ago was a tough blow, keeping him off the field as his small Brazilian team, Chapecoense, pulled off surprise wins against top clubs from his native Argentina.
But in the end, the surgery saved more than Martinuccio's knee. It saved his life.
After most of his teammates died in a plane crash in Colombia on Monday on their way to the final of the Sudamericana Cup, Martinuccio is one of a handful of players and staff at Chapecoense coming to terms with their escape from the same fate.
"If I'd been healthy, I would have gone to the match," Martinuccio said. "The fact that I wasn't there, it's very tough. It's too much for my head."
Of the 77 people on the charter flight, only two crew members, a journalist and three members of the Chapecoense squad survived after the plane crashed into a wooded hillside outside Medellin.
Psychologists counseling the club and surviving relatives in Chapeco say it may take far longer than just a few days for those left behind to work through feelings of relief, sorrow and guilt.
"Missing the flight is also a kind of trauma," said Andre Pessoa, a psychologist from a local university volunteering his services to the team. "On the one hand, those people may be relieved at not being on that plane, but the suffering may be as bad as if they had been."
For some, their absence was a simple accident. The son of coach Caio Junior was left behind in Sao Paulo because he forgot his passport.
Eliandra Valer, girlfriend of the team's security chief, had just traveled with the team to Argentina using her Brazilian ID, but she lacked a passport for the trip to Colombia.
"I was planning to go, but I was unlucky with the passport — or I guess I was lucky ... ," she said, choking back sobs. "I don't know what to think."
Former coach Vinicius Eutropio had left the team last year. He said the tragedy "makes you think about the value of your life, if there's any meaning to when you go and when you stay."
Claudio Winck, a defender whom the coach left out of the traveling team, said he struggled to get to sleep after spending Tuesday imagining what could have been.
"I lay there with my head on the pillow just thinking of my teammates," he said. "We all wanted to play in that final."