Prior to deadly crash, Chapecoense enjoyed incredible rise through Brazilian soccer ranks

Chapecoense were on their way to the Copa Sudamericana final when their plane crashed, killing 75 people and almost all of the team's players. That final should have been a celebration of the biggest moment in the team's entire history, but now it will forever be remembered for tragedy.

Chapecoense are a small Brazilian club whose run to the Copa Sudamericana final was nothing short of extraordinary. It was only seven years ago that the club was in Serie D, the fourth division of Brazilian soccer. They've never finished higher than 14th in a Serie A season and didn't have any huge stars.

They're a small team from a small city. And yet there they were on the cusp of a South American title.

The team's run to the Copa Sudamericana final began all the way back in the elimination stages, which are essentially the play-in rounds. There, they turned around a 1-0 first leg deficit to come back and beat Cuiaba for a spot in the final bracket. It took penalties for them to get past Independiente in the round of 16 and extra time to beat San Lorenzo in the semifinals. They played in a slew of tough matches, but they made it to the final — their first ever tournament final.

Copa Sudamericana may not be the biggest club tournament in South America — that title belongs to Copa Libertadores — but it is a big deal. It's a competition that brings together teams from across the continent, as evidenced by Chapecoense beating a team from Brazil, two from Argentina and one from Colombia to get to the final, where another Colombian team awaited them. It is the second-biggest tournament in South America and when Chapecoense qualified for Copa Sudamericana for the first time in 2015, that was considered a landmark moment for the club. They had made it to the big stage. And in 2016, they shone on that stage.

Chapecoense were within two matches of a South American title. The two-legged final, first in Colombia and then back at home, is all that separated them from a trophy that never even really seemed attainable for them. After all, they spent almost all of their history in the lower divisions and were in Serie D just seven years ago. But they had made it that close. And now it's all gone.