“UNITED: My Religion, My Testimony” is a signature series featuring supporters across the United States sharing their personal accounts of how they came to support the greatest club in the world. Our founder, Wil Cuadros, kicks off the first installment.
My love for the greatest club in the world begins with a tragedy that Manchester United supporters know all too well. It’s the story of a group of young footballers just starting to realize their full potential. It’s the story of a plane crash on the way home from a match. It’s the story of a football team wiped out in one tragic instant. However, this isn’t a story that begins in Munich… It’s a story that begins in Peru.
I was born in Buffalo, New York to Peruvian parents. Our family moved to Los Angeles a few years later, and not long after that the LA Aztecs of the North American Soccer League disbanded. Without a local club to support I became a fan of Alianza Lima, a football club that played in the La Victoria district of Lima, Peru. I did this primarily to upset my father who was an ardent supporter of Sporting Cristal, their bitter and more affluent rivals.
Alianza Lima, one of Peru’s most storied clubs, had gone eight years without any major honors. However, by the start of the 1987-1988 season they were contending for the league title thanks to a core group of young players nicknamed “Los Potrillos” (The Colts). These young players, as young as 18 years old, were considered by many to be the future of both the club and the national team for years to come.
On December 8, 1987, the team reached the top of the table with an away win in the jungle city of Pucallpa. Due to limited commercial flights in and out of the area, the club chartered a Peruvian Navy Fokker for the flight back to Lima. On approach to Jorge Chavez International Airport, the flight crew was unable to confirm that the landing gear was in a down and locked position. The pilot requested a flyby of the tower and the air traffic controllers were able to get a visual confirmation that the landing gear was secure. The pilots circled around for another landing but misjudged their altitude and crashed into the Pacific Ocean on their second approach. Of the forty-four passengers and crew on the flight, only the pilot survived.
The crash was devastating to me, my family and the entire Peruvian nation. I was desperate for more information about the accident and its aftermath. Unfortunately, coverage of the tragedy was extremely limited in the United States and most newspapers only devoted a few small paragraphs to the crash. A few days after the incident my parents drove out to a Peruvian market to pick up a copy of El Comercio, Peru’s national newspaper, to get some news about the crash from back home.
There in that newspaper, amongst the moving tributes to the players and the victims of the crash, a quote by a retired English player caught my attention. A man by the name of Bobby Charlton had spoken about the tragedy and publicly expressed his grief for the victims of the Alianza Lima disaster, as he had also survived a plane crash that had killed many of his teammates.
I wanted to know more about this man, his club and the accident that took the lives of his teammates. Thanks to a copy of Frank Taylor’s The Day a Team Died and other assorted offerings from the Long Beach Public Library, I proceeded to immerse myself into the history of Manchester United. I was floored by the stunning similarities between the Alianza Lima crash and the Munich Air Disaster. I had an immediate connection with the club.
(In all fairness, I also studied the Superga Air Disaster that killed the fabled Il Gran Torino team, but I didn’t speak Italian so that pretty much ended that)
It would be easier on me, and my word count, to end the story here and tell you I have been a die-hard supporter every since… but that would be a lie. After all, I was a twelve year old boy growing up in the 1980’s and living in a country where “soccer” was on TV less than female wrestling. Following a football club that played eight time zones away without the internet pretty much made me a casual supporter.
However, I did my best to follow the club and the exploits of its new Scottish manager, a chap named Alex Ferguson. I was happy when he guided them to an FA Cup victory and thrilled to see United take its first top-flight title in decades during the inaugural season of the Premier League. Over the next few seasons my interest in the club, which had started out as morbid curiosity, gradually grew into something more special. I had a deep affection for the club and its history by the start of the 1994-1995 season, an affection that would turn into into full-fledged passion in one brief instant on a cold January night in London.
The night The King kicked the hooligan.
To this day, I can’t begin to understand what appealed to me about that moment. It’s not as if any of us knew at that moment that Matthew Simmons was a miserable racist with pro-Nazi leanings. It’s not as if any of us knew what words were exchanged to set Eric off. Perhaps I was just a rebellious 19 year old college student looking for an anti-hero. Whatever the reason, all I knew was that I had never seen anything like it and that Eric Cantona was my new footballing hero.
A few months later a friend of mine returned from a vacation to England with my first Manchester United shirt, the iconic red number 7 Eric Cantona home shirt. That night I got home, put it on, and turned up the collar just like Eric the King did.
I knew I was going to be United for life.