Alianza Lima, formed 1901 by horse stud workers of Italian heritage are Peru’s oldest professional football club. Since their first championship in 1918, Alianza have won titles in every decade apart from one, the 1980’s, a decade marred by one of the saddest tragedies in South American football.
During the first round of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, the Argentine sports magazine El Gráfico named the Peruvian midfield made up of Alianza Lima players (César Cueto, Teófilo Cubillas, José Velásquez) as the best in the world. Peru, then South American champions, in their iconic white strip with red diagonal slash, had swept aside Scotland and Iran and got a very creditable draw against eventual finalists Holland in the 1st round. The 2nd phase however, they fell to 3 straight defeats including the infamous 6-0 defeat against the hosts.
That same year, Alianza Lima won the Peruvian national championship after 18 long years of suffering. Unfortunately, despite the talent in their ranks, this victory did not kick-start a new glory period in the club’s history. In 1987, after eight years of disappointment, the club found itself leading the Peruvian championship with a few games left to play. The team was galvanized with a generation of young stars affectionately known as “los portillos” roughly translated as ‘the ponies’. They came from lower divisions and young players spotted in the street and they constituted a new hope not just for Alianza but for the Peruvian national side that had been in decline following a disappointing performance in the 1982 World Cup.
On December 7th 1978, the title contenders travelled to Deportivo Pucallpa, a club based in the jungle in the east of Peru, and maintained their championship credentials with a 1-0 win that sent them top of the league. The Alianza players were keen to return to the capital as soon as possible after their victory to celebrate with family and friends. The club chartered a Peruvian Navy Fokker F27-400M plane to take them back to Lima but had to wait until the next day.
The plane took off early evening on the 8th December from Pucallpa airport at 18:30, as the plane neared its destination, the captain Peruvian Navy Lieutenant Edilberto Villar and his co-pilot could not confirm if the landing gear of the plane was locked down. The aircraft then completed a successful fly-by to confirm the wheels were indeed in place and turned around to attempt another landing. The plane carrying 44 people including; players, coaches, fans and crewmembers plummeted into the Pacific Ocean at 20:05 in the evening as the pilots flew the plane too close to the water and the impact was fatal.
After a few days of searching for bodies it was confirmed that everybody on board the plane had died, apart from one man: the pilot, Edilberto Villar. Sixteen players of Alianza Lima were dead and many of the bodies were never recovered from the ocean. The star of the team was Luis Escobar, who had made his debut at just fourteen years old and at the time of the accident was still only eighteen and was having a fantastic campaign. Francisco Bustamante (21 years) and José Casanova (24 years) were popular players for the national team also fell victim. Others included top goalscorer Alfredo Tomasini, who survived for many days as he was one of the few who could swim but drowned just before the rescue of the pilot.
Coach Marcos Calderón, arguably the greatest Peruvian coach of all time was a great loss for Peruvian football going forward, this man revolutionised the national side in the 70’s and was at the helm for the Copa America triumph in 1975 and the world cup campaign in 1978. During the season there was always talk that this team could form the base of a decent Peruvian national side again, perhaps with Calderón guiding them once more. He certainly still had a lot to teach and give.
National mourning and grief followed the deaths. Naturally the stars of Alianza Lima were the ones adorning pictures, t-shirts and newspaper headlines but this tragedy including fans, coaching stuff, referees and cabin crew. Mass crowds gathered on the beaches, in the street, in the bars and in the stadiums all united together in grief. The President of the Republic Alan Garcia and Ministers of State attended as many funerals as they could. Officially there were three days of mourning in honor of those who perished and it took three weeks until the national championship resumed.
As the news broke across the world, in England, Bobby Charlton made public his sadness at the news of the tragedy, remembering the crash suffered by the club Manchester United, February 6, 1958, which caused the death of eight players, the coach, a fan and eight journalists. Uruguayan and South American champions Peñarol played the final of the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, with black ribbons on their shirts as a sign of solidarity with their Peruvian counterparts.
Controversy followed the incident and many theories are still about today not helped by the fact the Navy and government kept the information and reports on the accident hidden from the public. It’s claimed they actually fired shots into the air when bereaved family members went to try and speak to them about the accident. Many a conspiracy theory was created, two popular ones in particular.
The first controversial theory is that the plane was part of a drug trafficking operation and whilst flying back to Lima, the players caught wind of this and it started an argument on board which ended with a couple of the players being shot, this theory is supported by various reporters who claim two things. One is that there were two other planes that came from Pucallpa in the days leading up to the accident carrying large quantities of Coca. The other is that they made sure the bodies of some of the players were never recovered because the clothes which had been recovered allegedly had evidence of bullet holes. All this commotion on board the plane led the pilots to crash the plane, perhaps on purpose to create a story and then flee the country. It is true that Villar did in fact flee to Australia as soon as possible and has never returned to Peru since the accident, a major fact supporting this theory.
The second theory is another one of heroic team action. All on board became aware of a mechanical problem with the plane and were told there was a risk that the plane might end up hitting a slum near the airport. All the passengers decided that it is best the plane is crashed into the sea to avoid a greater catastrophe on land.
The more likely explanation is that the plane was in substandard condition but also the pilots had very little experience and were struggling with the controls as neither could read or speak English so therefore they couldn’t understand the manuals. Lieutenant Villar had failed a special training course which could have prevented the accident. It was dark by the time the plane hit the water and the pilots records show very little flying time at night.
Whatever the truth is, the more controversial theories came about due to social class tensions in Peru. The players very much represented the poor communities they grew up in and the public found it hard to accept this was just an accident and believed that the players knew something, the government didn’t want people to know as it was in the midst of defending itself in a guerrilla war that was gripping the country involving the maoist organization Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) and had lost further legitimacy with the public by nationalising the banking system in the same year as the accident.
As for Alianza Lima after the crash, unfortunately they lost out on the title, having borrowed players from Chilean club Colo Colo and also got some old favourites out of retirement; the club struggled to recover initially from the disaster and nearly suffered relegation the following year. It took the club 9 years to fully recover and regain the Peruvian championship ending another 18 season wait. Nowadays they are searching for their first title since 2006, they finished third in the 2010 campaign. In a recent poll they were found to Peru’s most popular football club and the legacy of the ‘portrillos’ is said to be one reason for that.