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Chapecoense and other sporting aviation disasters

In the early hours of Nov 29th, Lamia flight 2933 carrying 77 people, including the Chapecoense football team, crashed a few miles south of Medellin, northern Columbia.

The team were due to play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, against Medellin team Atletico Nacional. Just six people survived and subsequently, the football world was plunged into mourning.

The saddest part about the crash, aside from all lives lost, is that such an incident is not unique in sporting, or even in footballing history. In this piece, we examine other sporting aviation disasters.

1) Munich air disaster

Perhaps the most well-known air crash involving a sports team occurred on February 6th 1958.

British European Airways flight 609, taking Matt Busby’s Manchester United team back to England after a triumph away at Red Star Belgrade, overshot the slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem airport, West Germany, where it had stopped for refuelling.

It was the third takeoff attempt after both pilots expressed dissatisfaction at the aircraft’s left engine. Of 43 passengers on board, 21 were killed, including seven Manchester United players. Manager Busby was severely injured and twice given last rites, but recovered and eventually rebuilt the team.

With Busby at the helm, United won the FA Cup four years later, the league title in 1965 and 1967 and then – a decade after the Munich crash – their first European Cup.

2) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash

On September 7th 2011, Yak-service flight 9633 crashed near the city of Yaroslavl in Russia on its way to Minsk, carrying 45 passengers; of which, 43 died.

On board were the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and every player but one on their roster lost his life. Forward Maxim Zyuzyakin, who was not on the flight, later became captain and embodied the team’s rejuvenation.

The crash happened shortly after departure and was blamed on human error, when the captain braked during takeoff, causing a stall.

3) Cubana flight 455

Cubana de Aviacion flight 455 from Barbados to Jamaica, carrying 68 passengers and the Cuban national fencing team, was bombed midflight on June 11th 1976. Two C4 explosives were used by terrorists in an incident found to be orchestrated by Orlando Bosch Avila.

CORU, his anti-Castro terror group had been waging a violent campaign against Caribbean neighbours that had developed strong links with the Cuban regime. Everybody on board died in the disaster.

A declassified FBI document dated October 21, 1976, states that CORU “was responsible for the bombing of the Cubana Airlines DC-8 on October 6, 1976… because CORU was at war with the Fidel Castro regime.”

4) 1972 Andes flight disaster

A chartered flight carrying 45 passengers and the Uruguayan Old Christian rugby union team crashed into the Andes mountains on October 13th 1972.

The incident was a controlled flight into terrain, in which both wings clipped mountain peaks and holes were ripped in the fuselage.

Upon impact, five passengers died, with some survivors perishing in the ensuing days due to avalanches and others resorting to cannibalism.

Sixteen people survived the ordeal, including six of rugby team. The disaster was the basis for the 1993 film Alive and in the Hispanic world is referred to as the ‘Miracle of the Andes’.

5) LOT flight 7

On 14th March 1980, 87 passengers on board LOT flight 007, which included the US amateur boxing team, crashed in the Polish capital on its way from JFK to Warsaw Frederic Chopin airport.

The crash was caused by a faulty engine and subsequent loss of flight controls, and killed everybody on board.

Post-crash investigations revealed that many of the boxers on board, unlike other sleeping passengers, knew that they were about to crash, as examinations by doctors showed tears to muscles and tendons in their arms, suggesting that they were braced upon impact.

6) Air Indiana flight 216

On December 13th 1977, an Air Indiana DC-3 carrying the University of Evansville basketball team to Nashville to play the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders crashed shortly after takeoff at Evansville regional airport.

Fourteen members of the team perished in the incident alongside 12 other passengers.

The crash was blamed on pilot error, with an overloaded baggage compartment ‘changing the aircraft’s centre of gravity to the back end’ combining with a locked rudder and aileron, meaning that the aeroplane could not get the lift necessary to keep it airborne.

The only surviving member of the team, who did not travel that day, was killed in a car accident just weeks later. A monument was erected outside the university called the ‘weeping basketball’.

How Pablo Escobar revolutionised Colombian football

When Pablo Escobar was murdered in 1993, it was calculated that, at his very peak, the drug-lord was worth $25 billion (inflation included). 

Having run the Medellín cartel for a rampant 20 years, the Colombian made his name as the most renowned trafficker of narcotics in the world.

Escobar boasted a violent streak as well as a fervent passion for his people and his country. He murdered, tortured, bribed and smuggled his way from small-time peddler to the most notorious drug-lord ever.

But the intrigue of Escobar’s story is that he is viewed in two ways: either a psychopathic murderer or a man who took Colombia’s political injustice into his own hands and gave hope to the ghetto. His moniker of ‘Robin Hood’ typified the country’s reaction to him during his early years.

Football was part of the ghetto; a sport for misfits. Football provided a genuine release of stress and depression for those facing social injustices, and they flocked to watch matches.

Escobar was no different to those impoverished football fans – but what was different was the fact that he had money to pump into his passion.

Affinity to football

When Pablo Escobar’s body was exhumed in 2006 – to clear up a DNA test for an alleged illegitimate child – one eye-catching detail was that the drug-lord had been buried with an Independiente de Medellín flag.

Escobar watches on as Independiente take on America de Cali
Escobar (left) watches on as Independiente clash with America de Cali

Independiente was his favourite team, but Escobar was not just a fan – he was also an investor, a motivator and quasi-manager.

At the beginning of Escobar’s drug trade, it was estimated that he was laundering over one million pesos through his community every month.

One of his outlets was his beloved Independiente who he had supported since he was a child. Amidst football, Escobar also ran bars, restaurants and garages to launder said money.

In the book Escobar, El Patrón del Mal – written by Alonso Salazar – it is revealed that whilst a victory would provoke wild celebrations, if Independiente lost, the king of narcotics would often spend days in isolation.

When his business was at its peak, the Colombian ran out of ventures to funnel his money through. Bars and restaurants could not intake the high amounts he required, so he decided to pair up with football club Atletico Nacional.

Lucrative and vibrant

Ironically, this team were the rivals of Independiente – but Escobar saw money overpowered affinity to one club. After all, Atletico Nacional also represented Medellín. That was enough of an excuse for the drug lord.

Before long, the Colombian league was one of the most lucrative and vibrant in the whole of South America – but at a cost. Before big games, Escobar would visit the Atletico Nacional team with his own unique words of ‘motivation’, along the lines of: “If you don’t win today, I will be paying your families a visit…”

While this was met with laughter by El Patrón, the players knew it to be somewhat honest.

This inspired them to excel, winning numerous domestic titles before their ultimate triumph, the 1989 Copa Libertadores – South America’s version of the Champions League. They trumped Olimpia de Paraguay 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw over two legs.

Atletico’s success meant less interest in Escobar’s beloved Independiente, leading to an uncompetitive league dominated by one club.


While Atletico Nacional were soaring – paying the highest wages and boasting the biggest names – they were also having suspiciously good luck.

“If the referee blows the whistle on a wrongly called foul, we will wipe him out” – Pablo Escobar

Referees often ignored offsides and in 1988, Nacional averaged one penalty per game throughout the season [Stat via Estadisticas del Fútbol Colombiano]. They also never received a red card in back-to-back seasons.

In that same year referee Armando Pérez was kidnapped for 24 hours over a “wrong decision” and threatened with murder over his future performances.

One official who paid the ultimate price was Alvaro Ortega, murdered in 1989 after “incorrectly” blowing his whistle during a draw between America de Cali and Independiente. He was shot dead outside his hotel, with the gunmen claiming his decisions had lost their boss a bet.

Nacional played in fear of Escobar, yet with the comfort that they would never lose. Escobar wanted a spectacle, not a struggle. Like the people of the ghetto, for him fútbol was a release, a safe haven to forget about attentions of the police and his criminal life.

Homegrown talent stays

The infamous Nacional side celebrate their first Copa Libertadores title

Escobar’s first public words regarding football were “homegrown talent stays,” and he made sure of that by laundering drug money through Nacional to ensure the best contracts for players and coaches alike.

He, in this regard, was no different to Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour; he wanted to build a super team.

In 1989, all his efforts finally paid off with Nacional’s Copa Libertadores victory – a thrilling 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over Club Olimpia de Paraguay – with all five scorers hailing from Colombia.

This team of superstars was coached by Francisco Maturana – Colombia’s most revered and successful manager.

Among his starters was the flamboyant keeper Rene Higuita, made famous years later for his scorpion kick save, as well as Andres Escobar (no relation) and Leonel Alvarez. Higuita was the biggest hero, saving four penalties and scoring one of his own.

Party at Escobar’s

After that triumph, Escobar invited every single player to his ranch for a huge banquet, where they were also given cash bonuses, Higuita famously earning extra ones for each penalty saved.

All-star games, in which Colombia’s top stars were forced to play, soon became a regular feature at Escobar’s ranch – with the leaders of warring cartels invited to bet on the outcome. Escobar himself is once believed to have wagered in excess of $20 million.

A nation of dreamers 

Escobar made football more than just a sport appreciated by the ghetto; it became a source of Colombian national pride. Poor kids now dreamt of growing up and playing football – a positive outlet as opposed to becoming a drug-trafficker.

“The children of Colombia can now aspire to more if they wish. That is the one positive and legacy Escobar left behind”

On Escobar’s watch, football became a national past-time.  The critically-acclaimed ESPN documentary ‘The Two Escobars’, which chronicles the game’s rise and fall, even suggests that at this time, Colombian football was the most prestigious of all of the Americas.

As ironic as it is, the drug lord’s involvement in football actually diverted public attention from the drug world. There was a genuine, viable option of money: playing football. The wages were there, as was the success.

As dirty as the man’s money was, it is inarguable that his influence over football is one that revolutionised the sport while simultaneously rejuvenating the population.

The death of Escobar

Following Escobar’s death in 1993 – executed by the Colombian military backed by US Special Forces – it was feared that, without his omnipotence, Colombian football would lose its unity and power but going into the 1994 World Cup in the United States, the signs were looking good.

Colombia were fourth in the Fifa world rankings and headed into the tournament with Pele tipping their side, containing the likes of Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincon, as possible winners. But what followed was Colombia’s darkest period.

In the 35th minute of a must-win game against, of all people, the United States, a low cross entered the box and Andrés Escobar puts the ball into his own net. Colombia went on to lose – and their World Cup dream was over.

Back home, 10 days later, Andrés was murdered by a cartel, with witnesses saying they heard “thanks for the own-goal” shouted by the gunmen.

Colombia fans unveil a banner promoting peace after Andrés’ death

It is widely believed that, had Escobar the narco been alive, Escobar the footballer – one of his favourites from the Nacional side – would have avoided his fate.

The years that followed

In the subsequent years, Colombian football rapidly unravelled. Clubs no longer prospered on or off the pitch. But the talent was there and, as years passed by, the cartels’ involvement in football lessened.

This, in turn, loosened the fear that the players had following Andrés’ murder.

A generation later, Colombian superstars such as James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Carlos Bacca and more play for some of the world’s top sides – although, significantly, not on home soil.

Had Escobar not created a nation of footballing dreamers would these players even exist?

Colombia has prospered

Debate over his saint or sinner status goes on until this day, but attributing Colombia’s success as a footballing nation to anyone other than Escobar seems unavoidable.

It is impossible to ignore the impact he had. He may not have played nor coached – and his methods were questionable to say the least – but he allowed a nation to dream.

Whilst Escobar grew up in Colombia’s most violent era, children growing up now can see bonafide legitimate sporting superstars from their own backgrounds.

They can spectate as their nation reach the quarter-finals of a major tournament, as in the 2014 World Cup. Escobar didn’t have an outlet as a child and some would argue that his foray into the narco-world was a product of his upbringing.

The children of Colombia can now aspire to more if they wish. That is the one positive and legacy Escobar left behind.