Pathos | Manchester is united

Of happier days in Manchester | UEFA commissioned English artist Liam Spencer—who favors industrial landscapes in his work—to create a “visual identity package” for the 2008 UEFA Cup final at City of Manchester Stadium on May 14. (© Liam Spencer)

Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 6 Feb 1958 Munich airplane crash that killed 23, including eight Manchester United players, will incorporate the entire city and avoid commercial tie-ins, organizers have decided. (See coverage in the Daily Telegraph and Times.)

Manchester United will wear an as-yet-undisclosed kit at a home fixture versus Manchester City on 10 Feb 2008, the closest match day to the anniversary date. The uniform, which will not be for public sale, may include the original team badge or the “phoenix” design from the FA Cup final against Bolton in May 1958. True to the style of the late 1950s, however, the jerseys will not include advertising or squad numbers.

The crash—resulting from the failure of a British European Airways Airspeed Ambassador G-ALZU to gain altitude following a nighttime departure from a snow-covered runway at Munich-Riem airport—became a defining event for city and country. Manchester United chief executive David Gill calls it “Manchester’s ‘Kennedy moment.”

Proof of its power as pathos have been the numerous reflections in text (see 15 Feb 06) and song. The melodies have not always carried the appropriately mournful sentiments of Morrissey‘s “Munich Air Disaster 1958,” released in 2004, in the United States, as one of four songs on the CD Irish Blood, English Heart (“We miss them / Every night we kiss them / Their faces fixed in our heads”).

In a 1994 article in Text and Performance Quarterly, “Joyful Mayhem: Bakhtin, Football Songs, and the Carnivalesque,” Mikita Hoy describes the terrace songs as part of a prominent genre employed to mock death. The lyrics, which are excruciatingly cruel, sometimes have been sung to the tune of “An English Country Garden”:

How many lived and how many died,
In the Munich air disaster?
Eight of them died, so they played five-a-side,
In the Munich air disaster.

There are other, more harrowing examples. Hoy continues:

In both the lyrics and performances of such songs, it is often difficult to decide whether “sacred” words, such as references to the ex–Manchester United team manager Matt Busby, to the chosen team, to the game itself, and so on are being used favorably, or whether there is a familiar, parodic “game of words” in progress; in other words, it is difficult to tell if names are evoked in reverence or in sacrilege. (298–99)

Such chants have been formulated by supporters of Manchester City but also by fans at Liverpool, Leeds, Bolton and other cities, according to those posting comments at the Daily Telegraph. “Less than two years ago, City felt compelled to launch a campaign designed to eradicate chants about the disaster, with a letter sent to their official supporters’ groups,” says the Times in its coverage.

The continued prominence of such chanting is open to interpretation. “I’ve been to more than a few Manchester derbies,” writes daniel at the Telegraph site, “and to say that Munich chanting is done only by a minority is not anything close to my experience. Maybe it seems that way from the pressbox, but it certainly isn’t the truth.”

In any case, organizers of the 50th-anniversary commemoration have worked to head off potential problems at the Feb 10 derby. City players plan their own tribute on match day.


Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, one of the most outspoken critics of the team’s pastoral deficiences after the 1958 crash, earned special recognition in Oct 08 for his heroic deeds that day (“Award for Munich Air Crash Hero,” BBC, 1 Oct 08). On the 50th anniversary Gregg returned to the scene to reunite with Vera Luckic, a pregnant woman whom he had rescued from the airplane wreckage. Gregg also pulled several others to safety.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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