Thursday, 14 February 2008

Celebrating the game of life

First published in The Grecian, 12 February 2008, Exeter City -v- Woking

For some of us at St James’ Park this evening, the terrible Munich air disaster of 6 February 1958 will have been a defining moment in our football memories. For others it will be something we heard from parents or grandparents. Then again, you may be learning about it for the first time, as newspapers, TV, radio and the Internet echo to the emotion of a tragedy that claimed the lives of some of the finest footballers of their generation.

One Exeter resident has particular reason to remember this month. Bato Tomasevic, now 78, wasn’t a footballer. He was an attachĂ© with the Yugoslav embassy in London, and he travelled as a diplomatic fixer on the plane carrying Manchester United back from their game against Red Star Belgrade when it stopped off in Bavaria for fuel.

The take-off was hampered by snow and ice. At the third attempt, the aircraft overshot the runway, crashing catastrophically. Twenty-three people lost their lives, including seven players (among them Duncan Edwards, who would almost certainly have played with England in 1966), club staff, journalists and crew members.

Mr Tomasevic was seriously hurt, and spent a month in the same hospital room as Bobby Charlton and other team members. Last week he took part in the moving commemorative event at Old Trafford. Over the past fifty years, like a number of those closely touched by the trauma, he had said little publicly about that awful night.

Two months after the crash, Bato married Madge, who he had met at Exeter University. They returned home, but fled again in 1991, under threat from then dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who did not like the programmes he was making as head of federal TV in Yugoslavia. The couple have now been living in Exeter since 1997 and have two adult children.

Last week, on Saturday and tonight, acts of remembrance for Munich have been taking place across Britain, in Germany, and throughout the world. Football, we are reminded, isn’t just about competition, money and celebrity – it’s something creative and bonding which reminds us, if we have any sense, that our common humanity means more than even the deepest rivalry.

Take Manchester United, for example. For those of us born within weeks of Munich, the first thing we associate with this most famous of teams is those ‘Busby babes’ who lost their lives in the snow, the incredible courage involved in rebuilding a team out of mourning and ashes, and that extraordinary night in 1968 when the team of Bobby Charlton, crash survivor, and George Best, brightest of a new generation, claimed the European Cup in a thrilling victory over Benfica.

I was 10-years-old that night, and like the whole country, it seemed, cheered my lungs out for United. For most football loving boys of my age, they were the iconic team of the era. These days it’s fashionable to hate Fergie’s fashionistas. Indeed, bile and hatred towards your football rivals seems a common thing. It leaves me feeling sick. Yes, those anti-Argyll chants, too. That’s because so many of the greatest tragedies in history have grown out of what are essentially petty dislikes stoked by pointless anger and fanned by fanaticism.

Munich reminds us that none of this does us any good. We can love our team without hating anyone else, just as we can love our family, country and friends without needing to despise others. It is the proximity of death, including the senseless loss of those young footballers in Munich, that reminds us what truly matters – and enables us to go on celebrating the game of life, both on and off the pitch.

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