Football Disasters in the Sky

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It’s not only English soccer (ok then, football) fans who feel numb with shock and grief when reminded about the 1958 Munich air crash that wiped out so much of the Manchester United team; it’s something that transcends the boundaries of nation and sport, and everyone is touched. However English teams have not been the only ones to have suffered a devastating air disaster. Many individual sportspeople have perished in air disasters, but on several occasions it has been the entire team, or at least the bulk of it, and the following are five nations that have lost soccer teams in similar tragic circumstances.

Italy

The Torino A.C. team known fondly by their followers as “Il Grande Torino” was returning from a game against Benfica in Lisbon on the night of the fourth of May 1949. It was a night of heavy rain, thunderstorms and low visibility and the pilot had trouble finding the airport. Close to the city a hill rises from the plain. On top sits a Church, the final resting place of the mortal remains of many of the members of the ancient House of Savoy, and around the grounds of the Church stretches a wall. It was that wall that the plane carrying the team crashed into killing all 31 people on board. The spot is marked by a shrine today with photographs of the men lost and fresh flowers which people regularly bring 70 years after the tragedy.

The club carried on for the rest of the season that year by fielding their youth team as did their opponents, Genoa, Palermo, Sampdorio and Fiorentino. Torino won all those games.

The hill is easily reached by a cog railway from the outskirts of Turin, a popular way to pass a Sunday afternoon for the Torinese. The view from the top is amazing with Alps in the distance plunging down to the flood plain of the Po, and the shrine comes as a bit of a shock when you follow the path around the perimeter of the Church grounds. Even with the laughter of families and the beauty of the day there is still a deep sense of sadness on the atmosphere as you read the names inscribed on the memorial.

Zambia

Zambia’s tragedy happened in the late evening of 27 April 1993. The pilot who was to take the national team in a Zambian Air Force Buffalo DHC-5D from Lusaka to Senegal had already flown from Mauritius that day and was tired. Two refuelling stops were to be made along he way, the first  in Congo. At that stop some engine problems were noted but the pilot continued. The second stop was at Libreville, Gabon. After fuelling up the ‘plane took off  but one of the engines caught fire and failed. The pilot shut down the wrong engine losing all power climbing away from Libreville. The ‘plane crashed into the sea just 500 metres from shore and all 30 people on board were lost including 18 players, coach and support staff.

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Only the team captain, Kalusha Bwalya, was spared; he was playing for a Dutch team at the time. He went on to form the next national team to represent Zambia but the force of the tragedy and the inexperience of the hastily recruited youngsters meant that the team was easily knocked out of the World Cup qualifier a few months later. On a brighter note however they reached the final of the 1994 African Cup.

USSR

Aeroflot never had a good reputation for safety back in the Soviet days; it’s a different story now, but bad maintenance, sloppy safety procedures and a general slovenly approach to everything was a recipe for disaster and it’s a wonder there weren’t more of them. One of those avoidable disasters happened on 11the August 1979.

Two Tupolevs were flying over Ukraine, one heading from Tashkent to Minsk, the other from Chelvabinsk to Kishniev. On board were a total of 178 people including 14 players and 3 staff members of the Pakhator Tashkent soccer team.

At around 13.35 that after noon the two aircraft were cruising at 27,200 feet unaware that air traffic controllers had not allowed enough separation space between them. The outcome was as catastrophic as it was inevitable.

Peru

Alianza Lima was at the top of the national league in 1987. After a 1-0 win over Deportivo Pucallpa most of the team, coaching staff and the cheer team boarded  a Fokker F27 for the flight home but crashed into the sea just 6 miles from their destination. Forty three people died with only the pilot surviving.

Mystery and intrigue surround the causes and aftermath of this disaster. The findings of the investigators didn’t come to light until years after the fact, allegedly having been taken illegally to the USA for “safe keeping” by the Navy Captain who presided over the investigation. The Naval Aviation Investigators cited poor condition of the aircraft, pilot inexperience at night flying and a misreading of procedure manuals as contributing causes.

The maintenance log book listed a number of concerns that had been reported but ignored. The plot’s English was not up to standard and was certainly not at a level of fluency that would enable him to read the manuals regarding the initial fault that sparked the emergency – undescended landing gear.

The pilot survived. However two other men, a member of the football team, Alfredo Tomassini, and another member of the crew, initially escaped from the crashed aircraft along with the pilot Edilberto Villar and all three struck out for the shore. Only the pilot made it and his various accounts of how the other men died don’t tally with each other. It gets you thinking.

And there have been many other football teams obliterated in aircraft disasters, and football is not the only sport to have suffered. Rugby, athletics, swimming, netball, baseball, American football, archery, they’ve all suffered, and it makes me queasy getting on a ‘plane with a team of sports people whether they be players or supporters.

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