The legacy of Los Potrillos

Air accidents have claimed a disproportionate amount of talented football teams and players over the last sixty years.  Peru suffered a heartbreaking loss in 1987 as Adam Brandon explains.

Alianza Lima, formed in 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, 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. In the 2nd phase however, they fell to three straight defeats, including an infamous 6-0 reverse against the hosts.

That same year, Alianza Lima won the Peruvian National Championship after an eighteen year wait. Unfortunately, despite the talent in their ranks, this victory did not kick-start a new glory period in the club’s history. It was not until 1987, after nine years of disappointment, that the club found itself leading the Peruvian championship with only a few games left to play. The team was galvanized with a generation of young stars affectionately known as ‘Los Potrillos’ (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 a Peruvian national side that had been in decline following a disappointing performance in the 1982 World Cup.

On December 7th 1987, the title contenders travelled to Deportivo Pucallpa, a club based in the jungle region of east 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 to take them back to Lima, but would have to wait until the next day to depart.

The aircraft carrying the Alianza players took off early evening on 8 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.  Sadly, the plane - carrying 44 people including; players, coaches, fans and crewmembers - plummeted into the Pacific Ocean at 20:05.  Following the flyby, pilot Villar flew too close to the water and the impact was devastating.

After a few days of searching for bodies, it was confirmed that everyone on board had perished, 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 aged just fourteen, was still only eighteen and enjoying a successful season. Francisco Bustamante (21) and José Casanova (24), both popular players for the national team also fell, as did top goalscorer Alfredo Tomasini.

Coach Marcos Calderón, arguably the greatest Peruvian coach of all time was another great loss.  This was the man that had revolutionised the national side in the 1970’s; he was at the helm for the Copa America triumph in 1975 and the World Cup campaign of 1978. During the season there was talk that this team could form the base of a strong 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 included fans, coaching stuff, referees and cabin crew. Crowds gathered on the beaches, in the street, in the bars and in the stadiums, united in grief. President Alan Garcia and Ministers of State attended as many funerals as they could. Officially there were three days of mourning in honour of those who perished and it took three weeks until the national championship resumed.

As the news broke across the world, Bobby Charlton made public his sadness at the news, recalling the Munich air disaster of 1958. 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.

Debate followed the accident and many questions remain unanswered, not helped by the fact that Navy and Government kept information and reports on the accident hidden from public view

A controversial theory exists suggesting the plane was part of a drug trafficking operation and whilst flying back to Lima an argument ensued which ended with two of the players being shot.  This theory is supported by various reporters who claim two things; one, 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 the bodies of some of the players were never reported as being recovered because their clothes contained bullet holes. All the commotion on board led the pilots to crash the plane, perhaps deliberately, to create a story and then flee the country.  Villar eventually moved to Australia and has never returned to Peru.

The more likely explanation is that the plane was in substandard condition and the pilots had very little experience.  It was dark by the time the aircraft hit the water and the pilots records show Villar undertook 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.  A widespread belief exists that the players knew something the government didn’t want them to.  In 1978 the Peruvian Government was defending itself against Maoist organization Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) and had lost further legitimacy with the public by nationalising the banking system.

As for Alianza Lima, after the crash, unfortunately, they missed out on the title, having borrowed players from Chilean club Colo Colo.  The club also persuaded some old favourites out of retirement, but struggled to recover from the disaster and nearly suffered relegation the following year. It took the club ten more years to fully recover on the field and regain the championship in 1997.

This year, Alianza are searching for their first title since 2006 after finishing third in the 2010 campaign. In a recent poll the club was named as Peru’s most popular and the legacy of ‘Los Potrillos’ is a reason for that.

You can follow Adam on Twitter @caniggiascores