Chile Today sat down with Gustavo Zerbino, one of the few survivors of the famous Andean plane crash, today 50 years ago. An often retold story, even in a film, but an important one in times of survival. “We did it, and our prize was life.”
Today 50 years ago, the world abandoned Old Christians Rugby Club in the Valley of Tears, 12,000 feet up in the Andes. The team had been traveling from Montevideo in Uruguay to Santiago de Chile to face Old Grangonians (Old Boys). After a grave navigational error, the pilots began their descent over what they believed to be Curicó in Chile’s central valley. They were in fact descending into the heart of the Andes at one of its highest points. 73 days later, the remaining survivors were rescued, after two of the team trekked for days to find the help of Sergio Catalán, the arriero (muleskinner) who passed away in 2020.
Their story has been recounted time and time over, the team surviving by doing the unthinkable, surviving on the remains of those lost in the crash. Among those trapped on the mountain, was Gustavo Zerbino. Despite living through an unimaginable situation, the Uruguayan rugbista has bounced back from that hardship, experiencing successes time again throughout his life.
Pensive of his experiences in the Chilean cordillera Zerbino reflects: “Those who died on the mountain live; they live forever in our hearts and minds …. Despite challenges and the hardship we faced, we enjoyed it intensely, like a game of rugby, having to tackle death straight on. We did it, and our prize was life.”
Upon his return from the cordillera, Zerbino continued to front up, tackling all challenges that he faced with vigor and resilience. He recalls knocking door to door after the flight to find enough players to field a team. The team formed went on to win 12 Uruguayan Championships in just 14 years. Zerbino, despite having lost 40 kilos, went on to make his international debut just 10 months later, recording Uruguay’s first ever win against Chile and marking the first use of the alias Los Teros (1973), playing as a winger. Zerbino later went on to start as a backrower for Los Teros for the rest of his career. Perhaps inspired by recent events, this Teros team was one of great heritage. Of the team of ’73, three became presidents of the Uruguayan Rugby Union, (URU) including Zerbino, who was secretary and then vice president before he became president (2007- 2011).
During his tenure much was achieved: a first “Nations Cup” entry, the development of the High-Performance program and the establishment of the URU training base. “We now have the high-performance centre at Charrúa, the most important high performance rugby facility in Latin America,” something not possible without the support of Albert Ferrasse and Bernard Lappasset of France, who first visited Old Christians following the crash in 1974 and hosted them in France in 1991 when the film of the crash, “Alive” was released.
“They put me in contact with Mark Egan, the number one in rugby development.” Alongside Hernán Rouco Oliva, head of CONSUR (now Sudamérica rugby), the high-performance program was developed, leading to their invite to the 2008 Nations Cup in Romania. “Mark Egan told me, ‘if you don’t win a game, you don’t come back. We were playing against Russia with fifteen left on the clock and we scored two tries to win the match. From that point on, we got invited back every year. Uruguay has now hosted four or five, winning the last three.” Zerbino puts Uruguayan rugby’s growth down to the support of World Rugby and various contacts. The country now enjoys more fixtures than ever, with rugby played in every corner of the nation, in prison rehabilitation programs and in state schools. Uruguay is a model for growth.
In typical character, when asked of his biggest achievement as president, Zerbino spoke of collaboration across the foundations of Uruguayan rugby. “[We] had a problem of governability …. I spoke to all the presidents of the clubs and asked for their support. Following this, we achieved governability and now have support from all our clubs.”
While currently working in pharmaceuticals, Zerbino is also a founder of the Charity “Rugby Sin Fronteras” (“Rugby Without Borders”). The charity demonstrates how rugby is a transformative tool that can turn problems into opportunities, through matches between groups divided by conflict, Cubans and Americans, ex-British and Argentine military personnel and more pertinently than ever, Jewish and Palestine children. Such is the impact of the work, the charity was invited to meet the Pope in 2015, where a game was played with players from WWI nations in the name of peace.
Despite these phenomenal achievements, the memory of what happened is never far away. Annually, Old Christians compete for the Copa de Amistad (Friendship Cup) against Old Boys, the team they were due to play on that fateful rugby tour. “In 1974 we returned to Chile by train, because nobody wanted to get on a plane. It was only two survivors, Vizintín and I. We arrived after three days on a train and played. There was an escort of cops as if we were the Rolling Stones!” The match was broadcast live across Chile, a historic first. “The friendship that was born back then continues today, almost 50 years on.” Zerbino added, “those who physically died live forever in our hearts, and we pay homage to them every time we step onto a rugby field.”
Having overcome one of the toughest challenges, Zerbino has made a success of life, spreading positivity through his love of rugby, but, above all, he seems to credit success to the good fate of being born Uruguayan. “Uruguay has a long history of adversity. Us Uruguayans show the world how to face up to adversity; 16 totally different people cheated death through unity, surviving 73 days in extreme temperatures on a glacier at 4000 meters. Uruguay is a tiny country, but in football has won multiple world cups. That is what Uruguay has, a huge heart.”
Indeed, this was more than evident when Uruguay faced ultimate 2015 quarter-finalists Wales at their home in Cardiff in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. “I was with Gareth Davies, the President of the Welsh Rugby Union the day that Wales played Uruguay. Gareth Davies said to me before the game, ‘Gustavo aren’t you scared about the result?’ and I said, ‘scared of?’, and he said ‘because the last world cup game Uruguay played in Australia (2003) against England they lost 140 points to I don’t know how many [111-13] and the bookies are predicting by how many hundreds Uruguay will lose today.’ I said to him ‘in Uruguay we don’t know what fear is, because we meet fear with courage and conviction.’ “
“The game started and in the first period, Uruguay was winning and in the first 15 minutes, three Welshmen got injured, and he couldn’t believe it. After the game he said to me ‘you were very courageous, you tackle very low whereas in Europe we tackle higher, but you’re not afraid to go lower even though it’s riskier.’ “
“After the game the Welsh captain (Sam Warburton) went to the Uruguay changing room and asked all of the Uruguayans to the Welsh changing room the share (tercer tiempo) after-match beers with the Welsh team, and all of the Welsh players gave their shirts to the Uruguayans, singing and celebrating together in the spirit of rugby. It was a real recognition of the Uruguayan team by the Welsh.’ “
Finally, when discussing COVID-19, Zerbino was unsurprisingly upbeat and reiterates the need to develop a mentality of solidarity. “In a few years we’ll forget the pandemic because it’ll be under control, but it has lessons. Us humans are stronger when we are united.” It was certainly this that saw them through their ordeal in 1973. “In the Andes, the world believed us dead. We had to develop and rebuild our belief systems to survive.”
Indeed, lessons can be learned from this approach. “In the mind, only two moments exist. The past, in which we feel guilt for things which we cannot change, with the weight of our losses, and the future which is unknown, provoking angst and fear. In other words, the mind suffers. The only place you can feel happiness and enjoyment is in the present.” As Zerbino says, “adversity develops creativity,” perhaps a message of hope and positivity that is helpful to all of us through a challenging time.