The Darkest Hour

by Valery Villena © Valery Villena (May 9th 2014)

The Silenced Stars

A few days ago half of Turin remembered their greatest team – perhaps the best ever. Il Grande Torino were cut down in their prime when the plane returning them home from Lisbon crashed at Superga. Everyone remembers the Busby Babes too – a talented team of young Manchester United stars in the making – killed in a plane crash in Munich in February 1958. Two years ago Zambia finally won the African Cup of Nations – fittingly in Gabon, the site of the terrible plane crash that killed their promising team. There were no survivors in the Gabon and Superga disasters.

But there’s another plane crash that hardly merits a mention despite the huge impact that it had on a South American nation and its most successful team – Perú‘s Alianza Lima. It too destroyed a promising team and impacted on the hopes not just of that club, but of that nation too. Unlike Superga and Gabon, these players had yet to fully establish themselves in the national team – their’s was rich promise destined to be unfulfilled and a nation mourning not just on Alianza Lima’s loss, but Perú‘s too.

Great Expectations

They should have been basking in their latest win – celebrating Carlos Bustamante’s goal which was enough to beat Deportivo Pucallpa. They were top of the league and looked set to win their first title in eight years. It was a team steeped in history – in the early 1930s they were the only team ever to win the Peruvian championship four times in a row.

Fast forward half a century and Alianza Lima is poised to rise again. It has been eight long and painful years since their last national title. Not only has success eluded them, but rivals have replaced them at the summit of Peruvian football, but all that was set to change. The phoenix of Alianza was rising once more.

Their young team, sitting proudly atop the league knew what was expected after almost a decade of failure – success and only success. Alianza won the Peruvian title in 1977 and 78 and the last ever Copa Simón Bolívar in 1976, but the 80s were a very hard decade. They missed out on titles to rivals Sporting Cristal and they were about to suffer a terrible blow – one that would take a decade to recover from.

A Fateful Day

8 December 1987 would change everything. It would alter the path of Alianza Lima and Peruvian football – crushing their aspirations as young lives were lost to a tragedy that should never have occurred. The Fokker F-27 that they were returning from Pucallpa to Lima in crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Lima’s airport – only the pilot survived.

There was just a few matches to play – win and Alianza would be champions, but the crash claimed the lives of Milton Cavero, Luis Escobar, Gonzales Ganoza, Gino Peña, Alfredo Tomassini, Daniel Watson, Braulio Tejada, César Chamochumbi, Carlos Bustamante, Ignacio Garretón, José Casanova, Tomás Farfán, William León, César Sussoni, Aldo Sussoni and José Mendoza – the entire team that was able to travel.

43 people lost their lives in the crash. First Lieutenant César Morales and other members of the crew, three referees, and eight fans as well as the coaching staff led by Marcos Calderón died too. Washington Gómez, Santiago Miranda, Gorge Luis Chicoma Alfaro, Orestes Suárez, Andrés Eche and Rolando Gálvez also died. Coaching staff, cheerleaders and referees also died along with Navy personnel.

It was devastating and led to an outpouring of national grief. Then President Alan García1 – whose – led the tributes, declaring himself to be an Alianza supporter since childhood.

Sir Bobby Charlton, a survivor of the Munich Disaster of 1958 sent condolences. Peñarol wore black armbands for the victims in the final of the Inter-continental Cup.

Solidarity

Juan Reynoso Guzman who was capped 84 times for Perú, Benjamín ‘Culibri’ Rodríguez and Juan Illescas, who were injured at the time didn’t travel and César Espino did not travel because he was serving a suspension. The Peruvian Football Federation decided that the championship should resume after three weeks.

After the Superga Disaster killed all bar one regular of the superb il Grande Torino team, their remaining opponents sportingly only fielded their Primavera (youth) teams as that was all that Torino could do. That great side’s last Serie A title was posthumous. Once the decision had been made to continue in Perú, there was sympathy, but not much more from opponents.

Teófilio Cubillas Arizaga – thrice an Alianza player – came out of retirement to play for them again. He played for free and managed them for a while too. César Cueto Villa also answered the call in Alianza’s hour of need.

But perhaps the most beautiful sporting gesture came from Santiago. Chile’s Colo Colo loaned Alianza players so they could complete the season – a gesture that sealed an eternal friendship between the clubs. José Letelier, Parko Quiróz,  Francisco Huerta and René Pinto were loaned to Alianza, whose supporters have never forgotten this solidarity. It was especially touching given the historic rivalry between the two countries, dating back to the independence wars against the Spanish.

Rebuilding

Alianza supporters go to Copa Libertadores matches against Peruvian opponents to support Colo Colo. Sadly fine gestures alone do not win football matches. Alianza had no option but to field a collection of retired heroes, youth players and the Colo Colo players. It wasn’t quite enough. The title was lost to local rivals Universitario de Deportes.

Alianza finished second and had to rebuild, narrowly avoiding relegation the following year. It took a decade to complete the rebuilding and win the national title again. They had waited almost two decades since their previous title.

Alianza lost a squad that seemed destined for great things and so perhaps did Perú – we’ll never know how good they would have been. And as for the aftermath of the crash, well that’s another story – a shameful cover-up that lasted almost two decades.

 

1  García remains a very controversial figure in Perú. His first Presidency saw the collapse of the Peruvian economy and currency with hyper-inflation devaluing the currency. The wages of Peruvians fell to below the level in 1960. the GDP fell by 20% and this was combined with a rise in violent activity by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). García tried and failed to defeat them militarily – something his successor largely achieved. Several gross violations of human rights such as the Accomarca Massacre occurred during this attempt. It is unclear exactly what level of personal responsibility for atrocities García bears – they are still being investigated – but there is no doubt that disappearances and killings were committed by the paramilitaries such as the Rodrigo Franco Command ( named after politician Rodrigo Franco Montes, who was killed by Shining Path) in this period. After his term expired García was accused of corruption, which led to him going into exile in Colombia and France before returning after the charges were dropped as the Statute of Limitations had expired. He became President of Perú again in 2006 until 2011.

 

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