Eight months after the Chapecoense tragedy, miracle man Alan Ruschel is a footballer again

It was a friendly match, with nothing on the line, and he was only on the field for 35 minutes – a mere cameo in normal circumstances. But on this occasion, for this player, it was so much more than that.

His body is a metal detector's playground of screws, pins and metal plates. His mind is strong, that much is obvious, but he will never forget what happened. Yet on Monday night, at the Camp Nou, for that sweet half hour, none of that mattered. 

252 days after the tragedy that claimed the lives of so many of his best friends and colleagues, Alan Ruschel was a footballer again.

It was by any metric an emotional evening. Barcelona welcomed their guests with warmth and respect, marking the lives of those who died last November. The Chapecoense jersey, pristine white, bore 71 stars, one for every victim. Neto and Jakson Follmann, two of the other six survivors, took the honorary kick-off. There were speeches, signed shirts and photo opportunities with Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and the rest.

At the centre of it all was Ruschel, who wore the captain's armband for the Santa Catarina side. "I'm very happy to be back," said the left-back. "These are great moments, ones to be thankful for. Playing against the best in the world was a big honour." But the honour, on this occasion, was surely Barça's.

It has been a long, arduous road back from that abysmal night in Colombia. Ruschel, just a few months into his second spell with the Santa Catarina club at the time, was one of the lucky ones. He was the first to be rescued from the wreckage of LaMia Flight 2933, although initially it looked doubtful that he would ever be able to walk again due to injuries to his spine. 

A broken hip and leg complicated matters further, but after a series of operations in a Medellín hospital, Ruschel was able to take his first steps just nine days after the crash. "A miracle," he called it. Within a fortnight he was back in Brazil, cheered and embraced by a late-night welcoming committee in his home town of Nova Hartz in Rio Grande do Sul. "I will do everything to play football again," he said then. "It will take a lot of patience, but I will give everything to make these people happy."

In the months that followed, Ruschel – along with Follmann and Neto, his two eternal companions – juggled agonising physio work with media appearances that must have taken a psychological toll. Through it all, his humility and determination shone through. "I'm just happy to be here, to be able to make the most of life," he said during the broadcast of Brazil vs Colombia in January. "We are doing our best to represent those who did not make it."

By February, the defender had started light training alongside Neto. Both players were registered by Chape for the Copa Libertadores, more out of hope than expectation, but Ruschel continued to make progress. When he came through a practice match in July, club directors excitedly circled the Barcelona date in their diaries. The player himself was reticent at first, arguing that it would be fairer on the club's fans if his first game back was at the Arena Condá in Chapecó, but later came around to the idea.

He was, however, clear about one thing. "I don't want to be treated with pity," he told GloboEsporte in the lead-up to the game. "If I'm going to continue my career, I have to be able to perform at a good level. If I'm unable to compete for my place, I'll rethink things. I don't want to be a marketing ploy, but an athlete like the others."

If his performance against Barça is anything to go by, that shouldn't be a problem. Chape were overrun by their hosts but Ruschel looked comfortable, drawing applause for an early dribble past Sergio Busquets and competing well on his flank. He may not have lasted too long – his early exit was planned – but a standing ovation and a shirt signed by Messi ("With all my care and respect," wrote the Argentine) will hopefully have softened that blow.

"It's a dream come true," he said after the match. "Just being able to do what I love again... that's what's important. I want to show people how to celebrate life – to show the joy of living, working, just being alive. I always dedicate myself to my work and today I was rewarded."

There will doubtless be more hurdles ahead if Ruschel is to return to the top level on a permanent basis. The physical scars are healing but their mental counterparts will naturally linger. For now, though, we must celebrate a player who embodies the valiant, heroic spirit of Chapecoense, eight months after the blow that almost wiped them out for good.