The purpose of a tragedy as Aristotle had famously remarked, is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. I have personally found that tragedy often throws life in sharp relief, helping us discover compassion and empathy that often gets lost in our habits and patterns that we take for granted. Today’s tragic incident at Medellin where a plane carrying players, staff, coaches, journalists and guests of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense crashed resulting in the deaths of 75 of the 81 on board is another such reminder. There is tragedy all around the world on a daily basis, but when it strikes, whether directly or obliquely, at sport – something that almost universally represents an escape from life’s worst and sometimes a coping mechanism for those struck by tragedy – it becomes extremely hard to come to terms with.
The scars events such as Capecoense’s leave can be deep and do not heal easily. Because sometimes we cope with our own scars and personal tragedy through sport, but where do we go when sport itself becomes tragic? That was the question that faced Matt Busby in 1958, after 8 of his ‘Busby Babes’, talented young footballers from the sensational Manchester United team of the early 1950s perished in a plane crash in Munich. That was the question that faced the world in Munich again when terrorists struck at the 1972 Olympics. That was the deep turmoil that the town of Marhsall faced when the Thundering Herd of Marhsall University, its football team, a matter of huge pride for the town, was all but wiped out in a fateful plane crash in 1970.
Any tragedy brings with it the painful prospect of having to get over it and rebuild, and that usually turns out to be the hardest part. The 2006 film We Are Marshall starring Mathew McConaughey captured that aspect rather well, showing how, as everyone deals with those typical stages of grief, ultimately lets the sport, the team and what the whole community experience of sport stands for do the healing. It sounds easy when you see a 2 hour movie, but in reality it is extremely difficult. But it also often brings to the fore the humanity we think we are missing. In the light of the Munich air disaster, Real Madrid dedicated their European Cup win of 1958 to the Busby Babes, and even played friendlies with the team to help raise funds. Liverpool, who were and still remain United’s fiercest rivals, set all that aside and offered five first team players as they rebuilt the team with legendary manager Bill Shankly stating that Liverpool would foot their wage bill. In case of the Brazilian team, who had shown remarkable progress in getting to the top tier of Brazilian football in less than a decade, steadily promoting themselves up from the fourth division, the French giants PSG have already offered financial aid to the tune of 40 million dollars. The material help doesn’t make the tragedy go away, but it does open the door to begin the process of recovery and healing.
Medellin, the Colombian city where the tragedy occurred on 29th November 2016, knows a thing or two about healing. Chapecoense were here to play Atletico Nacional, a team that had among its ranks Andres Escobar, a talented defender who was part of a golden generation of players who helped Colombia storm into the 1994 World Cup, but with complications created by the narco links to football in Colombia at that time with the long shadow of the other Escobar, Pablo, looming large, the campaign ended in disaster with a first round exit. Andres Escobar paid with his life for an own goal that he unfortunately scored in the final league game against the hosts USA. Colombian football faced a death spiral and was slipping off the world map until a new generation unveiled themselves in Brazil in 2014. That the tragedy had to happen in Medellin makes it infinitely more painful to come to terms with, but at the same time it is also perhaps a reminder that, as a friend of mine put it, ‘football has been here before, and football will rise. For these players. Forever Champions.’
Sport, as it always has, will finally help us heal. But until then, Forza Cahapecoense, you are in our thoughts and prayers, because if sport and the emotions it triggers are not universal, it is nothing.