Monday, June 25, 2018

Uzbekistan Still Mourns a Football Generation Lost to Air Crash - Part #1

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Vladimir Fedorov, Captain Mikhail An and Vasilis Hatzipanagis - stars of Pakhtakor
As the strongest football team from Central Asia, Uzbekistan has made it to the final qualifying round of the past five World Cups. Regrettably, on each occasion, the team has stumbled at the last hurdle.

Football started in Uzbekistan in 1912, i.e., in Tsarist times, in Kokand and Ferghana. In 1926 the first championship of the Uzbek SSR was played.

The most successful club in the Soviet period was FC Pakhtakor, the only Uzbek football club that played in the USSR Top League. (Pakhtakor means cotton picker and the Pakhator metro station in Tashkent, close to Pakhator's home stadium, has splendid mosaics of stylised cotton flowers).

Berador Adburaimov, who played for FC Pakhtakor, is regarded as one of the best strikers and greatest football players in the history of Uzbek football. The team of the mid-to-late 1970s, which consisted almost exclusively of Uzbekistan-born players, was particularly beloved.

Tragedy struck FC Pakhtakor in 1979, when the team was flying to play an away game in the Soviet Top League. Their plane collided with another mid-air over the Ukraine and all team members perished.

During the 2018 World Cup, it's timely to remember this remarkable team and how the memory still impacts Uzbeks and Uzbek football. This article, written by Chris Rickleton, is republished with permission from Eurasianet.

As a female announcer on Soviet radio read out the day’s soccer scores, Vladimir Safarov, a dedicated supporter of Tashkent club FC Pakhtakor, had a feeling something wasn’t right.

“The game between Dinamo Minsk and FC Pakhtakor did not take place, and will take place much later,” the announcer said.

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Pakhtakor team photo in the city of Sochi, Spring 1979.
It was August 1979 and Safarov was stationed in Damascus as part of a Soviet engineering corps working on Syria’s national rail grid. Within hours, Safarov’s Arab colleagues had broken the bad news that Soviet media was still studiously ignoring.

“They told me that a plane carrying players from Pakhtakor had fallen out of the sky in Ukraine on its way to Belarus. I didn’t believe it at first. But then we tuned into Voice of America and heard the same thing,” he told Eurasianet.

It would take a full week for the official version of events to reach Tashkent. On August 11, a collision of two airplanes above the Ukrainian city of Dniprodzerzhynsk (now Kamianske) had killed 178 people, including 17 players and staff of Pakhtakor.

By that point Uzbekistan’s capital was already ensconced in grief. Feeding off a diet of foreign radio reports and hearsay, a numb, shocked crowd of thousands of people had gathered outside the club’s storied stadium. Some had taken to sleeping on the streets.

One rumor doing the rounds was that the plane had been shot down after being mistaken for a hostile craft. After all, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had been on a flight to Crimea at around the same time the collision had taken place.

A belated state newspaper report featuring tributes to players killed in the crash was followed by a massive public funeral in Tashkent, where 178 symbolic stones were buried.

The news that a court had handed two air traffic controllers 15-year sentences for dereliction of duty provided a semblance of closure for some, but no consolation.

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The crash scene after the collision over Dniprodzerzhynsk, Ukraine

 “What we lost in that disaster is difficult to quantify,” said 79-year-old Safarov, who eventually moved from engineering into sports journalism, and is now regarded as Uzbek soccer's pre-eminent historian.

National tragedy

Pakhtakor was neither the first nor the last soccer club to be devastated by an air disaster.

A plane crash that killed 23 people following an abortive takeoff in Munich in 1958 robbed Manchester United and English football of some of its leading lights. FC Torino of Italy was arguably the greatest club in the world at the time of the 1949 air disaster near Turin that claimed 38 lives and left no survivors. In 2016, all but three members of the talent-packed first team of Brazilian club Chapecoense were killed after a plane crashed approaching the main airport in Medellin, Colombia.

The strange structure of Soviet football meant that the Pakhtakor air disaster was very much a national tragedy.

Football authorities in Moscow viewed it as desirable for every republic to be represented in the Union’s Top League. Pakhtakor became the first team from Central Asia to play at such a level in 1959. It was joined shortly afterwards by FC Kairat of Almaty in Kazakhstan.

Although other Pakhtakor teams achieved more, the team of the mid-to-late 1970s that consisted almost exclusively of Uzbekistan-born players was particularly beloved.

“We would go out to try and demolish sides,” recalled Tulyagan Isakov, the team’s captain and center-forward, who missed the visit to Dinamo Minsk with a career-threatening injury and attended the funeral on crutches.

One obvious shortfall of Pakhtakor's outgoing playing style – an old-fashioned version of the high-pressing tactics favored by modern-day super-coaches like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola – was that it left the defensive line sorely exposed.

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Monument to the Pakhtakor team at Bodkin cemetery, Tashkent
In the 1974 season, Pakhtakor was behind only league-winners Dynamo Kiev in terms of goals scored but conceded the third most goals out of the 16 teams in the league. The team ended the season mid-table.

The next season, Dynamo Kiev arrived at a struggling Pakhtakor for a league clash just over a week after having beaten a vintage Bayern Munich side in the European Supercup final.
In a stunning result, the Uzbek team, whose name translates as “cotton picker,” routed the champions 5-0.

The lynchpin of that performance and other famous Pakhtakor victories was the wiry and gifted midfielder Mikhail An.

“How much would An have been worth in today’s football market?” wondered Isakov, who scored a brace in the legendary game. “He captained the Soviet Union youth team. A team full of players from Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, sometimes Tbilisi. But the captain was an ethnic Korean lad from Tashkent.”

An was also ruled out of the fateful Dinamo Minsk clash with an injury but was persuaded to board the plane anyway in order to boost squad morale. When Isakov paid a visit to his teammate’s grieving mother after the crash, “she greeted me like a son,” he recalled.

Eventually, Isakov would return from injury to train again with Pakhtakor.

The club had been reinvented with players donated by other top league clubs and provided three years immunity from relegation by the Soviet football authorities. But it would never be the same.

“The old team was still in my heart,” Isakov said patting his chest. “I told them: "Sorry guys, I’m done".

Read part #2 of this article.

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