The 29th of November 2016 will go down in history as a dark day in world football. Heading out for the biggest game of their history, Brazilian side Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, or simply just Chapecoense, had their dreams crushed in the most devastating way. 71 passengers from the 76 on board LaMia Airlines Flight 2933 succumbed in the crash just as they were making their way to their spot of arrival.
And while the small city of Chapeco weeps about the demise of their fallen heroes, the rest of the footballing world has acted in solidarity. Messages from all over the world including the best of the best in European football like Barcelona and Bayern Munich sent out messages of support on their social media channels, while some clubs have acted to help the club back to its feet in this difficult time. Colombian side Atlético Nacional, who were set to play Chapecoense in the final of the Copa Sudamerica, have enlightened the footballing world by declaring the trophy is Chapecoense’s. Other Brazilian sides have offered to loan players to them with no additional costs, in a bid to get them running again.
Times like these puts rivalry aside and brings the footballing world together and this isn’t the first time something like this has occurred. Italian club Torino had their entire team wiped out in a crash in Turin when they were returning from a fixture in Lisbon against Benfica. Zambia, too had its entire roster taken away when they crashed in Gabon on their way to Senegal to play a World Cup Qualifier in 1993. The most prominent tragedy happened to English giants Manchester United when they lost a host of players and several other coaches and journalists while trying to take off from a slush-covered runway in Munich in 1958.
United lost eight players that day. Eight men that were the shining stars of English football who were set to take the club and country to new heights in the coming years, and under the tutelage of the legendary Matt Busby, they were ready to take on the world – going as far as the European Cup semi-finals that year. But fate had other ideas. ‘The Busby Babes‘ as they were called had the core of the side taken away from them and it was left to an ailing, yet defiant, Matt Busby to raise the club back to the very top.
The first to reach out to the club were Spain‘s most dominant side Real Madrid, who’s ex-forward and long-time president Santiago Bernabéu offered Manchester United that year’s European Cup which they eventually won by beating AC Milan in the final. United politely declined as they believed they were on the way back up, just a few months after the disaster. The Red Devils reached the FA Cup Final that year with a makeshift team largely made of young, local and inexperienced individuals who were showing fight to show the spirit of their manager and their on-field predecessors. They lost to Bolton Wanderers, but it was evidence that the club were rising from the ashes.
In another act of concord, Los Blancos‘ president offered their star player Alfredo Di Stéfano to the Red Devils, a deal which was agreed by all three parties involved, but rejected by the Football Association as they believed it would disrupt the development of local footballers. Nevertheless, United never stopped working in their rebuilding act and Matt Busby was still intent on winning some major honours as the manager of Manchester United.
The club were persistent right from moments after the disaster, to when they achieved their greatest successes. In their first game after the events in Munich, just 13 days later against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup, then-Manchester United chairman Harold Hardman famously inspired the footballing world with a famous piece in the club’s matchday programme:
“Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us… Manchester United will rise again.” – Ex-Manchester United Chairman Harold Hardman to United Review
They did just that.
In 1963, just five years after the crash they had the likes of Pat Crerand and Denis Law amongst their ranks while a certain Ulsterman who went by the name of George Best was knocking on the door with his flamboyance. Forward Bobby Charlton, goalkeeper Harry Gregg and centre-half Bill Foulkes, members of that ill-fated airline recovered from their injuries to star for the side once again as they won the FA Cup that season, beating Leicester City in the final to win the club its first trophy since 1957. They finished second in the league the following season, before Busby’s genius led them to the title, ahead of Leeds United, and they retained in 1967, finishing four points clear of Nottingham Forest.
However, it was in 1968, a decade after the tragedy in Munich, where Manchester United made history and became the darlings of the footballing world. They faced a Benfica side featuring the iconic Eusébio, José Augusto and stalwart Mário Coluna in the European Cup Final at Wembley. After Bobby Charlton struck early in the second half, midfielder Jaime Graça equalised to send the tie to an extra 30 minutes. This was where ‘The Busby Babes‘ were at their sparkling best. George Best and Brian Kidd scored withing four minutes of the start of the first period of extra time and Bobby Charlton capped off a euphoric afternoon with his second of the night to help Manchester United become the first English Cup to win the European Cup in emphatic fashion.
This was the greatest honour they could have given to their fallen teammates and predecessors. In just ten years Sir Matt Busby, along with the support of his colleagues took United from a sunken snowy patch in Munich to the holy grail of European football to form a model for the world to follow.
For now, Chapecoense can remember the men that were set to enter their names into South American footballing folklore. They’ve had a sensational story and that will never be erased from history. They’ve got the world behind them and as they start all over again to glorify their former friends and teammates, they’ll find empathy in the stories of the other sides that suffered the same fate over the years. Chapecoense has the support of many, and they’ll be ready to cement their legacies once again in no time.