Manchester United v Sunderland - Barclays Premier League

Too often I think neutrals feel uncomfortable talking publicly about certain club tragedies. It might be because these moments have taken on an almost ritualistic significance for the club supporters, atomized and discussed only in reference to themselves. This may explain the paucity of remembrances in the British papers today for the Munich Air disaster–which 56 years ago today took the lives of 23 people including eight Man United players. Munich has in some sense been reified, like an old memorial peaking out from under the snow. Even worse its legacy has, in some quarters, sadly become a partisan symbol, a reason to divide.

But the more I think about that snowy evening at Munich-Reim airport, the more I think Munich has something important to say about the present state of football. Specifically its difficult relationship with the outside world, a place where the risks are manifold, complex, and unpredictable, rather than limited, simple, and known.

When Matt Busby and the Manchester United side that progressed to the European Cup semifinals after drawing Red Star Belgrade 3-3 in the away leg boarded the Airsped AS-57 Ambassador plane, United were a team six points off top spot in the first division, chasing Wolves for a league title. Supporters of the club were likely more concerned with imagining which of the remaining quarter-finalists United would meet, or that weekend’s first division match. These events all had simple, known possible outcomes, though those outcomes were profoundly important to the team, the players and the supporters. United would win their weekend fixture, or they wouldn’t. United would win the next two legs of their European semifinal, or they wouldn’t. United would win the title, or they wouldn’t.

The outside world by contrast, the one we live in between fixtures, yields a vast array of complex, unknowable possibilities, an inscrutable mess of cause and effect. It’s the one in which a plane’s over-rich fuel mixture led to two aborted takeoffs, in which a pilot made a decision to press on rather than cancel the flight, in which that same delay led to slush building up on the runway causing deceleration after V1, a world in which 21 passengers came home to their families, and 23 didn’t.

Football can’t even compute the kind of tragedy we risk simply by being alive in the world everyday. Even the worst case scenario for most clubs–relegation, a loss in a cup final–carries with it a clear, manageable set of consequences. Clubs can endure everything, and they will go on. There’s always next season. That safety could be one of the many reasons for its popularity.

It’s incredible to think it wasn’t clear there would be a next season for United after that tragic crash in February of ’58. There were many reports the club might fold in the wake of such a terrible, deep and unexpected loss of personnel. United manager Matt Busby, who nearly died from the crash and has his last rites read to him twice, contemplated leaving the sport for good, the same man who would lead an English club to their first European Cup ten years later. A sport literally fenced off from the wider world was suddenly subject to outside forces that didn’t obey the Laws of the Game. They nearly destroyed one of its biggest clubs.

I think about these incursions from the outside when I read about owners selling off a club’s long-term financial health for a short term return, players paid not to play football but to accrue wealth in the transfer market while on loan to a club they didn’t sign for, third party player owners who care less about nurturing players than they do about cashing in, match-fixers paying players tens of thousands of euros or pounds to change a result for a big payout, world governing bodies condoning the razing of favelas to make way for sporting complexes. Forces that pull football off the pitch and into the inherently unpredictable universe of debt-finance, of corruption, of politics and sometimes worse.

It’s always been this way perhaps, but it now seems that where relegation once meant another season in an inferior division, today it means the difference between solvency and insolvency, between making debt service payments or selling the team and stripping its assets. Where once clubs paid top dollar to sign a great player in order to win trophies, now they do so as a means to boost the club’s valuation. Where once players played football to win, now, due to a complex and unregulated overseas betting industry, many play to make an illicit extra buck. The messy outside world is creeping ever further onto the football pitch.

The lesson of Munich is that football can and will survive all of this. As Carlo Ancelotti recently said, “Football is the most important of the least important things in life.” We need the safety of a game where the rules are clear, the consequences obvious, and the simple known outcomes are decided on merit mixed with a bit of luck. We need it as an oasis in the world of unpredictability, tragedy, unfair outcomes, and unforeseen consequences. Because if a club as youthful, audacious and fun as the Busby Babes can survive the heavy and unpredictable tragedy of the wider world, so too can football can survive the comparative trifles of the present day.