BY PAUL BREEN
Even before we know the full details, the tragedy of Associação Chapecoense de Futebol resonates with so many memories of other teams and people who have met their end in this terrible way. The one that springs to mind immediately is the Munich air disaster of February 1958 when the hopes of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ came to a crushing end on British European Airways flight 609. Other tragedies are well remembered too, such as the 1993 Zambian national football team air disaster, who perished on a flight to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal. Like the Busby Babes, this team was seen as having the world at their feet, to use one of football’s oldest clichés. Chapecoense too stood on the verge of entering a new phase in their history as they prepared to play the first leg of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana final against Atlético Nacional.
Now the world weeps with their supporters and those players we see left behind in the club dressing room, staring out into space, left numb with the shock of what has happened. The team had been travelling from Bolivia to the city of Medellín, Colombia’s second city, at the heart of the Andes mountains. Apparently, the plane experienced electrical problems in the latter stages of the flight and lost contact with air-control before crashing. Of the approximately eighty people on board, seventy six are said to be dead, with only three players amongst the survivors. Images posted on social media have also shown the players taking selfies and photographs as they set off on their journey, aspiring to the victory that would have been the greatest in their club’s history. Had they won the first leg of the match they would have been in prime position to claim the 2016 Copa Sudamericana on home soil; the highest honour in their history to date. And now, they have gone to join a different pantheon of greats, those whose lives and careers have been cut down, all too soon, in their prime.
The fact that most of us in Europe probably knew nothing of this team or these players this time yesterday doesn’t mean that we feel their pain any less. There is a present-day tendency for us all to express shock, horror, and a myriad of other emotions on social media sometimes without fully understanding the things we are getting so upset, irate, or energised by. But not in this case, because what has happened to all the people on that flight, journalists and players alike, resonates with our most basic instincts. Every time we get on a flight, there is an outside risk of something like this happening. In the last few years we have all been touched by the mysterious Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappearance, the MH17 crash over warring Ukraine, and the tragic disaster of Germanwings Flight 9525 where a pilot deliberately steered his plane into a mountainside in the French Alps.
Now the tragedy of Chapecoense has become the latest to catch our attention in a year that’s not been the best in recent history. Some even say that the present world has a fin de siècle feeling about it. But sadly, this has happened before, and like those other tragedies there is scant consolation in knowing that it will be remembered a long time after many such incidents are forgotten. I’m not sure why that is, and not just in the minds of football supporters. We seem to remember the death of football teams in plane crashes just as much as we remember the death of such musical legends as Buddy Holly and John Denver. It’s as if there’s a sense of collective grief that’s not quite there when we’re all just random individuals upon a flight, even though most of these tragedies tend to claim families and groups of friends in their wake.
There’s a great cruelty too in people dying as they are actively in pursuit of a dream, in the midst of chasing their holy grail, as happened with the Busby Babes and Zambia’s national team. Each of these teams share the common feature of being in a collective work mode when tragedy struck, and of leaving the world not just too early, but with the job at hand half done. The Busby Babes, so young and gifted, had just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-final, while the Zambian team had their sights set on the twin goals of the 1993 African Nations Cup, and the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States of America. Chapecoense, too, had just reached a period in their history of becoming consolidated in Brazilian top flight football having been founded just over forty three years ago – an age too young for a man, never mind a whole football club, to stare death in the face.
But, in their suffering and sorrow of the present moment, there can be hope too one day their club will rise from the ashes once again, inspired by the spirit and legacy of those who have lost their lives. That happened with the Zambian team who went on to win the African Cup of Nations two decades later, in Gabon’s capital city of Libreville, close to where the plane had crashed, 500 metres offshore from the city. Manchester United rose from the dark smoke and slush of Munich to claim the European Cup just a decade afterwards. Bobby Charlton, one of the surviving Busby Babes, scored two goals in that 1968 final at Wembley Stadium.
Chapecoense too will hopefully one day have their place in a different historical narrative or event, so that the team is associated with something other than tragedy. Right now, the suffering of everyone associated with this club must be reaching the fever pitch of human grief. The passengers too, if they realised that there was a problem, must have known the darkest fears imaginable in those last moments of travelling towards their death. It hasn’t been a very good year, half a century after Frank Sinatra sang about one that was. I don’t know what this year’s theme tune should be – maybe just silence for all the victims of all the tragedies that have come the world’s way in the last 11 months. But the last words should go out as genuine sympathy to all at Chapecoense and everyone else on today’s tragic flight.
Follow Paul Breen on Twitter @CharltonMen