Remembering two of the soccer world’s most tragic air disasters

This morning we learned that an airplane carrying the Brazilian club Chapecoense crashed in Colombia, killing almost everyone onboard

An event like this is tragic for many reasons that reach far beyond the game of soccer, but it is particularly sobering to think of the youthfulness and vitality of those young men, how they represent a universal human urge to play, and, now, the very short time allotted each of us to express it.

Probably the best-known air crash to affect the soccer world occurred in 1958, when eight members of Manchester United’s famous Busby Babes died on a Munich airfield, but there have been other catastrophes that brought down similar groups of young men whose abilities on the pitch brought pleasure to many people and whose deaths brought them great sadness.

In Issue 06, Luke Dempsey wrote about the tragedies that befell AC Torino and Alianza Lima. It’s easy, and often correct, to dismiss soccer as just a game. But by recalling the ways that we are similar, the ways history can run in circles rather than in a straight line, soccer can also help us make sense of things that don’t, otherwise, seem all that sensible. —George Quraishi

AC Torino, 1949

(Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Poor, ruined Xico Ferreira death is terrible for those left behind. And how could he not blame himself? Francisco “Xico” Ferreira was a much-beloved Portuguese midfielder, a stalwart of a fine mid-twentieth-century Benfica side of Lisbon. Oddly, he was also a favorite player of Ferruccio Novo, president of the Torino Football Club, who played some 1,300 miles away in northern Italy.

In early May 1949, Torino — who at the time just happened to be the greatest club team in the world — flew to Portugal in midweek to play a charity game against Benfica in Xico Ferreira’s honor. Honoring him was easy: he was a man known to castigate his own teammates for bad fouls. Ferreira had been told by his original team, Porto, that he was a scoundrel for asking for more money, so he moved to archrivals Benfica because he’d made a solemn promise to do so after Porto’s betrayal; he played more than 500 times for this most storied of Portuguese teams, and was planning one final move, to Turin, to play for Ferruccio Novo’s team of superstars. Not a scoundrel — the opposite. And yet he was to become poor, ruined Xico Ferreira….

It was a little after five p.m. on a day of thunderstorms when the plane carrying “Il Grande Torino,” as they were known, approached Turin following their charity game in Portugal. The game itself had been memorable — a 4–3 victory for Benfica — but never mind the loss: what mattered to Novo and Torino was that the great Xico Ferreira would soon grace the Italian team with his moral midfield abilities in the coming seasons.

And what a team Il Grande Torino was, a side for the ages when the ages were so bleak. Italy desperately needed a new beginning. The war had sullied their world standing, and poverty was rampant. Football became a welcome respite from the shame of Fascism and the pressure to rebuild. A man like Xico Ferreira would bring even more moral fiber to a team that was already considered to be, in the words of Italian journalist Gianpaolo Ormezzano, “all full of the sentiment to represent Italy in some new way.” It wasn’t as if they needed help on the playing side. As recently as 1947, in a match between Italy and a great Hungary side, all 10 outfield players for Italy were culled from the Turin club (“Italy” won 3–2). Up front, the great genius Valentino Mazzola could, again in the words of Turin native Ormezzano, “in every time of the match … change the result in favor of Torino.” A Lionel Messi for his time, this mezzala (what we now call a “false number 10”) called Mazzola had helped Torino win the Italian league in 1943 and then again in 1946, 1947, and 1948. In 1949, with just four games to go, Torino had already sewn up the league once more, and with the trophy in the bag had headed off to Portugal for that charity match for Ferreira.

That run of championships straddling the war was an astonishing achievement. Torino had beaten Milan by 13 points in 1947 and by 16 points a year later, a record that still stands. There were any number of records, in fact. In 1948, they scored an astonishing 125 goals; in 1949, they dropped one point at home all season. Yet despite all this local brilliance, Italy as a nation still hung its head. Wasn’t the chance of bringing a man of Ferreira’s standing — a man who’d put an arm around the shoulders of a teammate whose tackle had been too stringent — to Italy worth a brief trip to Lisbon between league games?

Fog rolled over Turin on Wednesday, May 4, 1949. Hidden behind the swirling clouds stood Superga, a mountain upon which stood the famous Basilica di Superga. The Basilica was the result of a solemn promise made by the Piedmontese to the Virgin Mary if she’d help them beat back Louis XIV in 1706. We may presume the Blessed Mother did indeed help, because with the French vanquished, the church of thanks was built. There it stands still, an 18th-century Baroque masterpiece, 3,000 feet above the city of Turin, with views of the city below and the snowcapped Alps beyond. Filled with the tombs of the dead of the Savoy family (the Italian royals), the Basilica di Superga is a favorite of day-tripping Torinesi and tourists alike, but that day nothing of it could be seen behind the pea-soup weather. The only option for the pilots bringing the Turin club back to their city was to descend and fly by sight, but something went horribly wrong in the navigation and the radios were faulty — the good graces of the Virgin Mary nowhere to be found. The plane carrying Il Grande Torino crashed full-on into the back of the Basilica, high up on Superga. The result was catastrophic — everyone on board perished. Gone was Valentino Mazzola, considered to this day one of Italy’s greatest ever players; gone was his illustrious striking partner, Croat Ezio Loik; gone were the Ballarin brothers, Dino and Aldo; gone were 14 other players, five officials (including Leslie Lievesley, a British-born coach who once played for Manchester United), three journalists, four crew members, and an organizer.

And gone as a footballing powerhouse was Torino. Unlike Manchester United, who suffered a devastating plane crash in 1958 in which a number of top players perished but who went on to dominate British and European football, the Italian club has prospered only fitfully since 1949. It took them until 1976 to win the league once again, pipping their hometown rivals, Juventus, by two points. But this seeming renaissance didn’t take. Though they finished runners-up the following season (to Juventus), that was effectively the end of their great successes. (They did reach the UEFA Cup Final in 1992, having knocked out Real Madrid in the semifinal, but lost to Ajax.)

Torino have recently bounced back and forth from Serie A to Serie B (they even were barred, disbanded, and reformed in the mid-2000s after a financial scandal), while Juventus dominated the Italian scene in the early 1980s and the late 1990s and won Serie A in 2012 (not to mention their winning two European Cups since Torino last won anything). These days, though Torino are back in Serie A after a recent three-year run in Serie B, they are a club thoroughly overshadowed by their illustrious city-mates.

And Xico Ferreira? His transfer to Torino never happened. He stayed at Benfica, brokenhearted, for three more years until he retired at the age of 33. He died on Valentine’s Day, 1986, at the age of 66. Poor, ruined Xico Ferreira is still considered one of Portugal’s finest ever midfielders.


Alianza Lima, 1987

El Comercio, Peru

Since its founding in 1901, Alianza Lima has won the Peruvian League 23 times, but it will never be 24, not really. Because if and when this club wins its 24th title, it will never be their 25th; their 26th will never be their 27th; 27 can never be 28 … and on, ad infinitum. There will always be something missing for this top Peruvian side.

Soccer in Peru has Anglo roots, as British immigration spread across South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Peru it quickly became a game of the masses, though much of its spectacle still revolved around the capital, Lima, the Amazonian interior being difficult to reach via road. By the 1980s, a movement to decentralize Peru politically and economically led to the establishment of regional soccer championships, but the decision would have tragic consequences.

On December 8, 1987, and with the end of the season fast approaching, Alianza Lima flew 400 miles inland to a town on the Ucayali River called Pucallpa. There, they notched a routine 1–0 victory over Deportivo Pucallpa on the way to surely clinching the championship, Alianza’s first since 1978. They had been the best team that season, and after the win in Pucallpa they sat atop the table. That evening, the team boarded a navy plane and headed back to Lima (the military supplied air transport for soccer teams, as they struggled to afford flights around the country for these new regional matches).

It was 6:30 in the evening. The pilot, a navy man called Edilberto Villar, who had limited night flying experience — and was doubtful about the condition of the plane, navy aircraft being notorious for lousy maintenance — asked the control tower at Lima airport to tell him if the landing gear was down. Assured that it was, despite there being no confirming light in the cockpit, Villar circled back toward the airport, but he had burned out his fuel. One wing clipped the sea, about seven miles offshore; the resulting crash was catastrophic.

The rescue boats never came that night — their gasoline had been corruptly siphoned off. It wasn’t until the next morning that the search began, and by then it was too late — only one person survived: Edilberto Villar. Gone was the team, the coaching staff, some fans, some journalists — 44 people in total. To the tragedies that befell Torino in 1949, Manchester United in 1958, Denmark’s national team in 1960 — all victims of plane crashes — now was added the name of Alianza Lima.

Los Potrillos del ’87, they had been called: the ’87 Colts. Among them was Luis Escobar, who first played for Alianza Lima on May 26, 1984, when he was 14 years old. His body was never found, though people rushed to the beaches to wait for corpses to wash up. At the other end of his career was José González Ganoza, a 33-year-old goalkeeper — he had played for the Peruvian national team and was about to win his first title. One player is said to have survived the night, but though he was a strong swimmer, a broken leg denied him any hope of survival.

There was no time to mourn, according to the football authorities; the Peruvian league continued. Lima borrowed players from Colo-Colo of Chile, 2,000 miles away. But it was to no avail — Lima’s archrivals, Universitario de Deportes, won the national title. It would be a decade before Alianza recovered enough to win the Peruvian title once again. They have won the Peruvian Primera División five times since 1992, but there will always be one title missing.

The navy, for their part, sent the secret report on what went wrong to a safety deposit box in Florida. It took 16 years to find out that the pilot was at fault, the plane a mess, the air traffic controllers blameless. In The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt reports that there was even a conspiracy theory that the players had discovered cocaine on board and the navy, fearing exposure, had shot the players and brought the aircraft down. (Context is all: at the time, Peru was under attack from Shining Path, a Marxist guerrilla movement that terrorized the country, though many thought that it collaborated with the navy.)

Whatever the cause of the crash, tragedy has always seemed to stalk the team. On May 13, 1976, the day after beating Alianza 4–0, Cruzeiro’s Roberto Batata died in a car accident. And having finally won the Peruvian championship in 1997 after a decade of sadness, Alianza’s central defender, Sandro Baylón, died after drunkenly crashing his car into a wall and a light fixture in Lima — he was 22 years old. It was 5:45 a.m. on January 1, 2000.


Excerpted from Club Soccer 101: The Essential Guide to the Stars, Stats, and Stories of 101 of the Greatest Teams in the World by Luke Dempsey. Copyright © 2014 by Luke Dempsey. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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