ON 8 DECEMBER 1987, before descending into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, Alianza Lima ascended to the top of the Peruvian league table.
The match which saw the Peruvians reach the pinnacle of the domestic game was played in the Amazonian city of Pucallpa against Deportivo Pucallpa and ended 1-0 in favour of Alianza, who chose to return to the capital city of Lima that evening on a Fokker F-27 plane which they had chartered from the navy.
The team was ecstatic. They had control of the table with only a few games remaining and looked forward to celebrating upon their return. Before taking off for Lima, the captain of the plane, Lieutenant Edilberto Villar, was said to have refused to fly the aircraft due to the poor condition it was in. However, after some persuasion, he and 44 people on board left the Amazon at 6:30pm.
Alianza Lima is one of the oldest, most successful, and well-supported clubs in Peru. During the Peruvian golden age of the 1970s, they possessed one of the greatest midfields ever constructed in the form of José Velasquez, Teófilo Cubillas and César Cueto. It was with these three players that Alianza last won a league title in 1978, and a triumvirate that helped Peru lift the Copa América in 1975.
The team of 1987, although young, was supposed to bring an end to the title drought of nearly a decade. In those intervening years, Alianza had witnessed their city rivals Universitario and Sporting Cristal claim the Peruvian championship a total of five times between them.
The Alianza team of 1987 had come to be known as Los Potrillos (The Ponies) due to their youthfulness and abundance of energy. No player captured the essence of that young team more than Luís Escobar, who made his professional debut at 14 and was still at the ripe age of 18 during Alianza’s title run in ’87.
Read | Peru, Cubillas and the 1970s
As with all youngsters full of promise, Escobar was considered a future great. This young rascal who could zigzag around defenders and climb over their backs to head the ball into the goal was already being christened the successor to Teófilo Cubillas, which was praise as high as Hercules on tip-toes. But he was not the only one considered destined for great things. This Alianza team was going to supply the national team with current and future stars to take them back to the top of South American football. After years of fruitless campaigns, it seemed time was finally back on Alianza’s side.
The manager of this young herd of stallions was none other than Marcos Calderón, a legend in his native Peru not only for winning ten domestic titles with league legends such as Universitario, Sport Boys and Sporting Cristal, but for leading Peru to the Copa América title in 1975. Calderón’s teams, especially his Peruvian national side, took as much joy in entertaining the crowds as they did hoisting trophies. His Peru team would struggle in the World Cup against the mechanical discipline of the European teams but lifting South America’s premier international tournament was sweet consolation.
He hoped to achieve the same feat with Alianza and put an incredible amount of trust and belief into his young players. Instead of breaking his ponies to the whip, he let them run free. It was a tact few managers would be willing to try, but Calderón, with his years of experience, knew when to rein them in and when to let them gallop. And gallop they did, right towards the league title, becoming the best Alianza side in a decade.
There were – and are – many conspiracy theories surrounding what happened on the flight from Pucallpa back to Lima, each as unlikely as the last. The Naval investigation into the accident was not released to the public, the Peruvian Navy shunned all press inquiries, and no private investigations were allowed, giving the public a chance to create its own scenarios and likely causes. However, in 2006, a Peruvian television program by the name of La Ventana Indiscreta (The Indiscreet Window) gained access to the final conclusions of the Naval Aviation Commission report, which had remained illegally locked in a deposit box in Florida for almost two decades.
The story of Alianza’s fatal flight home, according to official reports, is as follows: ‘The Navy Fokker F-27 captained by Lieutenant Edilberto Villar departed the Amazon at 6:30 in the evening en-route to Lima. The maintenance log given to the lieutenant before take-off detailed several mechanical issues with the plane, including an oscillating radius altimeter which was used by pilots to determine the altitude at which they were flying.
‘Upon the F-27’s approach to Lima, Lieutenant Villar and his co-pilot could not confirm that their landing gear was down due to a cockpit malfunction that indicated the landing gear had not lowered. Villar requested a fly-by so that air-traffic controllers could give visual confirmation of the landing gear being in place.’
Read | Teófilo Cubillas: Peru’s mercurial hero in triumph and tragedy
The fly-by confirmed the aircraft’s landing gear was down, and Villar circled the plane to prepare for another landing attempt. However, Villar misjudged the altitude at which he was flying, unaided by the malfunctioning radius altimeter which should have alerted him of his dangerously low altitude, and the plane’s right wing collided with the Pacific, sending Alianza and Peru’s future to eternity just six and a half miles short of home. Lieutenant Villar, miraculously, would be the only survivor.
Villar had recorded only 5.3 hours of nighttime flying in the previous 90 days before 8 December, and none in the last 30. He had also reportedly failed a special training course for Peruvian pilots that test the operator’s ability to work under high-pressure demands during times of distress. The Navy report would highlight his personal failings while conveniently undermining the clunky nature of the plane he was flying.
The following day, announcements of the catastrophe were met with the most common of reactions during times of tragedy – disbelief. Imagine New York without the Yankees, Catalonia without Barcelona, Munich without Bayern. Imagine what it would feel like to support your team in the afternoon and search for their bodies in the morning. That’s what supporters of Alianza did, in a haze of shock, confusion and sadness.
Over the next few days, the extent of the disaster became clear. On 10 December, club president Agustin Merino confirmed the worst: “None of the players stayed in Pucallpa,” he said. “All of them were on the plane.” If someone had survived from that team, anyone, the people would have had something to cling onto, a sign of hope that they could bounce back the way Manchester United had after the Munich Air Disaster in 1958. Instead, they were left with football’s version of Atlantis; an entire team disappearing into the depths of the ocean in a moment.
Some fans attended mass, some went to games being played in Alianza’s stadium in honour of their fallen heroes, and some went to the home towns of the players and began a massive funeral march to the stadium, a pilgrimage to show what they had meant to them. The families of the deceased marched to the Naval base to demand answers as to what had happened and where the bodies of their loved ones were. The Navy refused to give out any information and told the families to leave. The confrontation became heated – as it was always going to – and Naval forces fired shots into the air to drive the families away.
If you think the behaviour by the Peruvian Navy throughout this entire episode had been suspicious and borderline sinister, you would be correct. However, it’s important to know the context of the social and political situation in Peru at the time.
Read | The tragedy of Luis Escobar, Peruvian football’s Duncan Edwards
The communist insurgent group known as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) was causing chaos throughout the country via acts of terror such as kidnappings, murders and bombings, meaning the Peruvian government was not about to let it be known that they were responsible for the deaths of the most beloved football team in the nation due to their inability to keep military equipment in proper working order. All of their actions after the incident, from the refusal to make the investigation public or allow anyone out to the crash site, to the turning away of families and all the secrecy, was to save face during a time when they had a genuine fear of the communist guerillas.
In the midst of all of this chaos that the Peruvian league had to continue. After all, there were only a few games left and Alianza was still on top of the table. In order to finish their season, Alianza used players from the youth team, formerly retired players like Cubillas and players on loan from Colo-Colo in Chile, who had volunteered their services to one of the most well-respected clubs in South America.
It wasn’t enough. Alianza lost their league title to their biggest rivals, Universitario. It would be another 11 years before Alianza reclaimed the Peruvian league title. They are, once again, one of the favourites for the title year-in year-out, but no amount of championships can make up for what was lost on that cold December night.
Who knows how good that Alianza team could have been, a team that the press of Peru thought was going to instigate a positive revolution in the state of domestic football. Who knows how good Luis Escobar could have been, at the time just 18 and with the best parts of his life still laid out ahead of him. It’s hard to comprehend how such basic flaws in the crash and subsequent inquiries were allowed to pass.
This is the problem with football; no matter how much we want it to, it can’t exist in a vacuum. Tragedy and trouble comes creeping into it all of the time, no matter how hard we try to push it away. It’s a terrible thing to face when what is supposed to grant us escape from our pain and heartache becomes the source of it. We have no choice but to stare back into all of that sorrow and face it head-on, armed only in the knowledge that tomorrow can be better. For Alianza Lima, almost two decades on, tomorrow is finally dawning again.
By Ian Walker. Follow @ForgottenLibero