Remembering Uzbek football’s darkest day

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Saturday 11 August 1979; a date that shall forever remain etched into the soul of Uzbek football.

On this fateful midsummer’s morning the central Asian republic’s most successful side of the Soviet era, Pakhtakor Tashkent, embarked upon a journey to what is today Belarus for a Top League fixture against Dinamo Minsk. They would never make it.

After a stopover in the Ukraine, almost 10,000 metres above the city of Dniprodzerzhynsk in dense fog the Aeroflot plane carrying the squad collided with another en route to Moldova, killing all 178 people aboard the two aircrafts.

This was at a time when charter flights were reserved for the Party nomenclature, meaning habitually clubs made these mammoth trips via passenger jets.

Pakhtakor had set off from Tashkent for Minsk via Guryev in Kazakhstan and had refuelled in Donetsk before the tragedy struck.

Among the dead were 14 players and three members of the club’s backroom staff...

Sergey Pokatilov, goalkeeper.
Yury Zagumennyh, defender.
Nikolay Kulikov, defender.
Olim Ashirov, defender.
Ravil Agishev, defender.
Michael An, midfielder.
Konstantin Bakanov, midfielder.
Alexander Korchyonov, midfielder.
Vladimir Makarov, midfielder.
Vladimir Fyodorov, striker.
Victor Tchurkin, striker.
Sirojiddin Bozorov, striker.
Shuhrat Ishbutaev, striker.
Vladimir Sabirov, striker.
Vladimir Chumakov, doctor.
Idgay Tazetdinov, coach.
Mansur Talibjanov, administrator.

Aside from the adverse weather conditions, Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev’s trip to Crimea had brought disruption to the region’s flight corridors and ultimately the cause of the accident was human error.

In an era before Mikhail Gorbachev’s of glasnost and perestroika the disaster was hushed up somewhat, with news of the crash first appearing in Moldovan and Belarussian newspapers the following Tuesday.

It took until 18 August for details of the funeral service at the Botkin Cemetery in Tashkent to be made known nationally.

There was a huge outpouring of grief, not only in the capital but across Uzbekistan as the population mourned the loss of a gifted generation of players whom were part of the country’s only ever side to play in the top tier of the Soviet football pyramid.

Founded in 1956, Pakhtakor finished sixth in the Top League just six years later. They failed to build upon this success however and in the seventies were something of a yo-yo club, though some stability seemed to have been restored in 1978 though with an 11th-place finish.

By a strange quirk of fate, the club’s Ukrainian manager Oleh Bazylevych had travelled separately from the squad and survived the crash, as did goalkeeper Aleksandr Yanovskiy, along with Tulyagan Isakov and Anatoly Mogilny.

Pakhtakor were left with the dilemma of how they should revive the club; then, in a remarkable act, the football world came together.

The championship’s other sides loaned them players – enough for Bazylevych to cobble together a side – and incredibly just 12 days later Pakhtakor were back playing football.

That they lost 1-0 to Ararat Yerevan is perhaps not a surprise.

Yet the club ended the season an extremely commendable ninth in the 18-team division, just one place below where Pakhtakor had been prior to the accident.

A three-year guarantee from relegation had also been given to them by Soviet football authorities.

Bazylevych departed for Spartak Moscow the following year and predictably Pakhtakor struggled in the next two seasons, finishing in the lower echelons of the table, only to manage a record-equalling sixth-place finish in 1982.

Andrey Yakubik was one of the championship’s leading players and scored 23 goals in 34 matches.

Two years later Pakhtakor were relegated though and wouldn't return to the Top League until the final season of the Soviet football calendar. Yesterday marked the 32nd anniversary of the accident.

There have been many changes in the central Asian republic since then but Pakhtakor and Uzbekistan have not forgotten the 17 who lost their lives on that terrible day.

A monument bearing the names of the deceased stands in Tashkent and from a young age footballers from across the country come together for a tournament held annually in their honour.

Fittingly, in time the “cotton pickers” have been able to once again establish themselves as Uzbekistan’s most successful side.

Pakhtakor broke Neftchi Ferghana’s hegemony during the years following the fragmentation of the USSR and have won the Oliy League a record eight times, along with 10 Uzbek Cups.