This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
The middle decades of the twentieth century are pockmarked by devastating air disasters, tragedies that often snuffed out hundreds of lives in an instant. As the cost of commercial air travel came down, so passenger numbers climbed. It was inevitable that this would lead to an escalation in aircraft crash deaths, at least in the short term.
Many of the most famous instances have involved the loss of sports teams. The fact that squads almost always travel en masse means that when something goes wrong it does so on a grand scale. In some cases, whole teams – players, coaches, and administrative staff – can be lost in one devastating accident.
Though more than half a century has passed, most European supporters will be familiar with the grim stories of Matt Busby's Manchester United in 1958, and the 'Grande' Torino side of 1949. The former were involved in a crash at Munich airport that left 23 dead, eight of them United players, and several others seriously injured, derailing a side that was rapidly coming to dominate English football. In the latter, an entire team was wiped out in one horrific moment, after their plane crashed into a wall at the rear of the Basilica di Superga, set on a hilltop outside Turin.
Less well known, certainly outside the former Soviet Union, is the sad tale of FC Pakhtakor Tashkent. In August 1979 their whole first-team squad perished in a mid-air collision, which occurred in the skies above Ukraine on the way to a game in Belarus. The crash was a tragic accident, but there is an inevitable whiff of Communist Party cover-up about the events that day.
Based in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, then part of the Soviet Union, the club was named Pakhtakor (literally "cotton-grower") as a nod to Uzbekistan's status as a significant exporter of cotton. As Uzbekistan's sole representatives in the Soviet Top League they were the republic's flagship side, and duly enjoyed the support of Sharof Rashidov, the First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party. (The hugely corrupt Rashidov committed suicide in 1983 when his leading role in the 'Great Cotton Scandal' became apparent).
By 1979 Pakhtakor were semi-established members of the Top League, a club that sometimes fell afoul of relegation but tended to quickly return to the premier division. On 11 August, they were scheduled to fly to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to face the city's Dinamo club. That game would not be played.
The nineteen-seventies, like the sixties before them, were a decade marked by a horrifying number of tragedies in the skies. Looking at sport alone, during the autumn of 1970 two American college football teams were almost entirely wiped out in air disasters; in 1972, the Old Christians rugby side crashed in the Andes, with a dwindling number of survivors remaining there for more than two months; while further tragedies struck a Formula One outfit and an American college basketball squad in 1975 and 1977 respectively.
Pakhtakor themselves had already suffered the frightening side of air travel in 1979: a trip to Indonesia earlier in the year was hit by such severe turbulence that some players suffered nightmares and developed anxieties about flying.
As such, there would have been some trepidation among the ranks as they stepped on to the Tupolev Tu-134 commercial aircraft that day, along with close to 100 other passengers.
Sat on the tarmac, they may or may not have been aware that the skies were busier than usual. Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, was embarking on a trip to Crimea. This caused considerable disruption in the area, with flight paths being kept clear for the most powerful man in the USSR's private aircraft. With more planes trying to use a smaller amount of airspace, the chance of a collision was considerably increased.
Following the initial leg of the journey, the plane carrying Pakhtakor made a stopover at Donetsk Airport in Ukraine. After taking off again, it was in the skies above the city of Dniprodzerzhynsk that tragedy struck.
First, the Pakhtakor plane was mistakenly sent into the direct flight path of another aircraft, itself carrying close to 100 passengers and bound for Moldova. Realising their potentially catastrophic error, air traffic control rapidly instructed the other plane to climb above Pakhtakor's craft. A response of "Understood" quickly came over the radio, easing the ground crew's fears.
But the reply had not come from the Moldova-bound aircraft, nor the Pakhtakor craft, but from a third plane in the crowded skies (heading, as it happens, for Tashkent). While this climbed as mistakenly instructed, the other two were heading straight for each other.
The result was devastating: a head-on collision at close to 10,000 feet that resulted in the deaths of everyone on board both planes. In total, 178 people were killed in the skies above Dniprodzerzhynsk.
Among them were 14 players and three members of the backroom staff from Pakhtakor. The playing squad included a pair of Soviet internationals – Vladimir Fyodorov and Mikhail An – while the staff on board comprised a coach, a doctor and an administrator.
Given the role Brezhnev's flight unwittingly played in the crash, Soviet news agencies did not rush to report the story. It first appeared in Moldovan and Belarusian newspapers the following Tuesday, then in the national press a full week after the crash. Even then it was simply stated that the Pakhtakor players were being buried, and not what had killed them. Though not aggressively covered up, there was certainly an element of keeping the story as quiet as possible.
Unsurprisingly, there was a great deal of grief across the Uzbek republic, and indeed throughout the USSR. Pakhtakor were a popular team that represented a region of more than 15 million people. Of course, this was about more than a football side: 178 lives were lost, not just 17. But Pakhtakor's fame, particularly in the Uzbek region, served to make the tragedy all the more real. At the very least, it amplified the scale of the lives lost.
It is easy to envisage a disaster of this magnitude spelling the end for a football club. To lose the entirety of its playing squad, as well as some coaching staff, effectively reduced Pakhtakor to an organisation with nothing to organise.
And yet they survived the disaster. In fact, they played again just 12 days after the crash.
Head coach Oleh Bazylevych had not been aboard the plane with his players, and so was left with the stark task of rebuilding a shattered football club (the 40-year-old would see out the season before departing Pakhtakor for CSKA Moscow). The Soviet footballing authorities were supportive, instructing other clubs to make players available so that the Uzbek side could complete the 1979 campaign. Among those drafted in was Gennadi Denisov, who would go on to play close to 400 games for the club over two spells.
What's more, the league granted Pakhtakor a three-year relegation exemption. They did not finish low enough to need it, battling through the first two seasons after the disaster and then finishing sixth in 1982 – equalling their previous all-time best, set 20 years earlier.
This was to prove Pakhtakor's high-watermark in Soviet competition. The club succumbed to relegation in 1984 and spent the next six years playing in the second-tier (Denisov was part of the side that led them to the Soviet First League title in 1990). Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the club joined the new Uzbek football league and, unsurprisingly, became its biggest powerhouse. Pakhtakor were domestic champions for the inaugural 1992 season and have since won a further 10 titles, firmly establishing themselves as the strongest force in Uzbek football.
And yet they could so easily have fallen into a terminal malaise following the loss of their playing squad. The club's continued existence is testament to the strength of locally rooted sports teams and their almost religious importance to an area and its people. As the only Uzbek club playing in the Soviet top-flight, Pakhtakor represented something akin to a national side (as did the opponents they were flying to meet, Dinamo Minsk, among others). As such, the club truly did encompass far more than the men who took to the field in their colours. Their loss was tragic, but it was never in doubt that Pakhtakor would continue.
The club finished the 1979 season in eighth place and, of course, their fans kept coming to games as they had before the crash. The near-religious fervour that football can instil meant that, following their loss, there was nowhere they would rather be than in their stadium cheering for their team.