GENEVA – The tragic plane crash which last week claimed the lives of the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team reminds us all that there are more important things than sport.
It also reminded many in Russia of a similar disaster, which took place in 1979. Pakhtakor, the most popular and successful football team in Uzbekistan at the time, were flying to an away game in the Soviet Top League, when their plane collided with another in mid-air over the Ukrainian town of Dniprodzerzhinsk. There were no survivors.
Though 32 years stand between the grim fates of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and Pakhtakor, the two incidents share some commonalities. The Yak-42 aircraft on which the ice hockey team were flying last week was developed in the 1970s as a direct replacement for the Tu-134 on which Pakhtakor were flying. And, eerily, the destination of both aircraft was the capital of Belarus, Minsk, where both sides were pencilled in to face, respectively, the football and hockey teams affiliated to the city's Dinamo sports club.
The investigation into last week's plane crash at Yaroslavl's Tunoshna Airport is still to be completed - latest reports suggest that the plane, which hit a communication tower on take-off, crashed because the pilots forgot to turn off the emergency brakes. But though it has been over three decades since the lives of 17 players and staff of Pakhtakor were claimed, rumour and recriminations continue to abound.
An hour-long 2008 documentary broadcast in Russia sought to re-examine the details of the case in depth. That is largely because the court files concerning the plane crash remain top secret. The most outlandish of whispers suggest a cover-up - involving the possibility that, as in an incident in 2001 over the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, a stray missile fired by the Ukrainian military could have brought down the team's plane.
But the facts of the case, as they are known, are rather more prosaic, though nonetheless tragic.
Pakhtakor had been on the rise throughout the 1960s, enjoying the patronage of the leader of the Uzbek Communist Party Sharof Rashidov. In 1968 they reached the final of the Soviet Cup, losing out to Torpedo Moscow.
And by 1979 they were enjoying a near decade-long period in the Soviet Top League. In 26-year-old midfielder Mikhail An, an ethnic Korean born in Uzbekistan after his parents were exiled there under Stalin, they had their star player, while striker Vladimir Fedorov, a bronze medal-winner for the USSR football team at the 1972 Olympics, led the line.
Travelling to Minsk on 11 August, the team were coming off the back of a 3-1 win over Zarya Voroshilovgrad, and were handily-placed for a push towards European qualification.
Some months previously, the Pakhtakor team had flown to Indonesia, and had encountered such serious mid-air turbulence that some players and staff suffered nightmares in the aftermath. One of the player's wives stated in the 2008 Russian documentary that her husband had been having dreams in which he was standing in front of a mirror watching his hair fall out.
Despite any potential reservations on the part of the players, the flight to Minsk went ahead as planned.
However, there was a complication. The General Secretary of the Communist Party - the de facto leader of the Soviet Union - Leonid Brezhnev was due to fly from the Kremlin to his country retreat in the Crimea on the same day. Ukrainian air traffic controllers were instructed to maintain a clear flight path for Brezhnev's plane, forcing other planes into only two available corridors in the skies over Dniprodzherzhinsk. Some 700 planes passed through the clogged airspace on that day, with air traffic controllers Nikolay Zhukovsky and Vladimir Sumskoy charged with directing the aircraft.
With the skies crammed, and radar technology less reliable than today, Sumskoy directed the plane carrying Pakhtakor to a height of 8400m - directly into the flight path of another plane travelling from the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk to the Moldovan capital Kishinev. Sumskoy realised his error, and urgently requested the second plane to climb to a height of 9,600m. "Understood," came the reply over the radio.
Sadly for all concerned, that response came not from the plane bound for Kishinev, but from a third plane flying to the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Just over a minute later, Pakhtakor's aircraft collided with the plane bound for Kishinev, killing all 178 passengers and crew on both aircraft.
In a response typical of the Brezhnev-era Communist Party, renowned for its inertia to the world around, it took an entire week for the Soviet news agencies to begin to report the story. With the Party fearful of the reaction of the people of Uzbekistan, and never the most open over the facts in any case (it took two whole days, for example, for the Soviet authorities to reveal the Chernobyl disaster to its own citizens in 1986), silence prevailed. A week after the crash Sovetsky Sport blandly published an article on the burial of 17 Pakhtakor players in Tashkent, without entering into a detailed account of the cause of their deaths.
A court case was brought against air traffic controllers Zhukovsky and Sumskoy, and both were found guilty for their roles in the accident. Both were sentenced to 15 years in the Soviet Union's penal colonies. Sumskoy served six and a half years before his release, and now lives in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Interviewed by the 2008 documentary-makers, he appears quiet, reflective and burdened with guilt.
For Pakhtakor, life moved on. The Soviet League voted to protect the club from relegation for the next three seasons, and ordered the other member clubs to each lend a player to Pakhtakor to see them through the 1979 season. One of these, striker Andrey Yakubik, who joined from Dinamo Moscow, became a Pakhtakor hero in his own right. He was Soviet Top League top scorer in 1982 and earned a place on the 33-man footballer of the year list. That same year, just three years on from the crash which wiped out most of the squad, Pakhtakor ended the season in sixth place, their highest ever finish in the Soviet League.
Today they remain the most successful Uzbek football club in history, with eight national titles since an independent league was formed in Uzbekistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are also producing talented youngsters. Odil Akhmedov, a defensive midfielder who came through the youth ranks at Pakhtakor, signed this month for big-spending Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala - with Arsenal also rumoured to have been chasing him. The crash of 1979 is not forgotten, but there are new successes to celebrate.
Undoubtedly things look bleak for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl at the moment. But if history is anything to go by - not just the case of Pakhtakor, but those of Manchester United and Torino too - teams can return stronger from these darkest of moments. One can only hope this latest sporting tragedy will have a silver lining.