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Soccer fraternity’s avoidable plane tragedies

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(FILES) This file photo taken on November 23, 2016 shows Brazil's Chapecoense goalkeeper Danilo celebrating after defeating Argentina's San Lorenzo during their 2016 Copa Sudamericana semifinal second leg football match held at Arena Conda stadium, in Chapeco, Brazil. A plane carrying 81 people, including members of a Brazilian football team, crashed late on November 28, 2016 near the Colombian city of Medellin, officials said. The survivors, two crew members and three players of Chapecoense Real Alan Ruschel, goalkeeper Danilo and Jackson Follman were transferred to local hospitals, according to radio Caracol. / AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 23, 2016 shows Brazil’s Chapecoense goalkeeper Danilo celebrating after defeating Argentina’s San Lorenzo during their 2016 Copa Sudamericana semifinal second leg football match held at Arena Conda stadium, in Chapeco, Brazil.<br />A plane carrying 81 people, including members of a Brazilian football team, crashed late on November 28, 2016 near the Colombian city of Medellin, officials said. The survivors, two crew members and three players of Chapecoense Real Alan Ruschel, goalkeeper Danilo and Jackson Follman were transferred to local hospitals, according to radio Caracol. / AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA

The crash, last week, of a plane carrying a first-division Brazilian soccer team in which 71 of the 81 people aboard perished has re-opened old wounds on similar air disasters. The latest tragedy is neither the first nor the second or third or fourth, etc that has happened in the past and brought misery and heartache to families, friends and the soccer world. The question is why these disasters have been allowed to continue without any attempt to stop it.

Why is the soccer world closing its eyes on avoidable tragedies that have plagued soccer for decades? The ugly tide has snuffed life out of hundreds of promising youngsters? After making the mistake was made for the first time, why have the soccer authorities not come up with corrective measures? And why are the football clubs also lethargic.

The Brazilian team, Chapecoense, was headed to Columbia to play a scheduled match in the Copa Sudamerica (equivalent of Europe’s UEFA football league) against Atletico Nacional in Medellin. The chattered plane reportedly crashed on approach to the city. The victims included members of the Chapecoense team that rose to the first division just two years ago in 2014. Twenty of the dead were journalists. The cause of the plane crash has not been established.

Less than a decade ago, Chapecoense trailed from the background in Brazil’s “D” league. How it climbed to celebrity status was astonishing to many. And for the same team that braced the daunting challenges to just disappear like that evokes deep sadness.

Going by the way these tragedies have been occurring, the latest disaster would soon be counted as another in the catalogue and forgotten. But that should not be the case. Something needs to be done about the logistical arrangement for players that would ensure their safety. The practice of packing all players in one plane should be reconsidered; there is no wisdom in it. It is tantamount to putting one’s eggs in one basket which is fraught with danger. Why can’t arrangement be made for players to use different airlines to fly?

Available records show that since 1948, no less than 24 air crashes involving soccer teams have occurred that claimed a total of about 793 people. The victims included players, football officials and journalists. At least 16 countries have lost the crème of their soccer population in the heart-rending disasters. A few examples of the most disastrous soccer team air crashes will illustrate the long history of soccer air disasters.

The Czechoslovak national ice hockey team was probably the first to experience the disaster when on November 8, 1948, its plane crashed in the English Channel off the coast of France killing five members. That ought to have served as a warning shot but apparently, nothing was done and more were yet to come.

Thus, on August 14, 1958, a plane carrying the Egyptian fencing team crashed in the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland. Ninety-nine people died including six members of the team.

Before another major soccer air disaster occurred in 1969, in between, the USA lost 53 people in three air crashes that occurred in 1960, 1961, 1968 and Chile 24 in 1961. In 1969, virtually all members of the Bolivian soccer team “The Strongest” perished in an air disaster that left 83 people dead.

The United States experienced yet two horrible soccer air disasters in 1970 and 1980. On November 14, 1970, all 37 players from the Marshall University football team perished in an air crash that killed 75 people. Again in 1980, 14 members of the U.S. amateur boxing team died on a plane crash in Warsaw, Poland. A total of 87 people aboard the plane were killed.

On April 28, 1993 the entire Zambian national soccer team (18 players) was killed when their plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean off Gabon. The team was on their way to Senegal to play a World Cup qualifying match. The disaster robbed Zambia of its most promising players.

Perhaps, the nearest that Nigeria has had in this string of soccer air disasters occurred on September 18, 1994 when the plane carrying players of Iwuanyanwu Nationale (now Heartland FC), crashed in Tamaransett, Algeria on their way back home after an African Champions Club Cup competition (now African Champions League) match against Esperance of Tunisia. Five out of 40 on board the aircraft lost their lives. The minimal casualty was due to the effort of the pilot who crash-landed the plane at Aguennar Airport in Algeria after he encountered poor visibility.

The underlying cause of the deaths in the numerous plane crashes involving soccer teams is that players are put in one plane, which exposes all to avoidable danger. So, what is the best way to handle this problem?

Since virtually all the trips involving soccer teams are for scheduled matches, it is possible for the clubs to book different flights for the players for them to arrive the destination on time. Granted that it is more convenient to have all the players fly in a chartered or commercial plane, as the case may be, the point is that has proved to be fatal. The inconvenience is nothing compared to the loss of human lives.

Just the same way international conferences, meetings and other events are scheduled and delegates come from around the world on different airlines, booking different flights for players would be more convenient; the bookings would be made in such a way that each player would be able to arrive on time. Any other arrangement that packs players in one plane is fraught with great danger as has been the case.

It is remarkable that African countries have not had many of these disasters except the Zambian and Nigerian cases. The reason is that Africa is not deep in soccer like Europe and America. Of the 24 soccer air disasters, America alone has nine, Russia three and UK two. The other countries, namely Italy, Egypt, Chile, Bolivia Uruguay, Peru and a few others have one.

It would be foolhardy if the soccer fraternity ignores the latest Brazilian tragedy and continues as if nothing happened. The time has come for countries, club sides, sponsors and other soccer stakeholders to take a critical look at soccer air disasters with a view to stopping it.


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