Day out for the subterranean homesick reds

First the ordeal, then the world tour as Chilean miners are fêted at Old Trafford

Once they were famous for being trapped for a very long time in a deep, dark space. Now, it seems, they are everywhere – including the VIP stand at Old Trafford, watching last night's top of the table clash between Manchester United and Arsenal.

Twenty-six of the 33 Chilean miners who gave the world the best good news story of 2010 were at the Premier League game as guests of that old Manchester United legend, Sir Bobby Charlton. Sir Bobby, 72, who is a director of the club, issued the invitation back in October, when "los 33" were still trapped underground and it was not altogether certain that they would ever emerge alive.

Until yesterday, the last image that most people in Britain had seen of them was when they were lined up in hospital garb as they underwent medical checks, looking relieved to be alive and free.

Yesterday, the 26 visitors sported brilliant red Manchester United shirts as they posed for the cameras with Sir Bobby. The remaining seven, who perhaps are not Manchester United fans, preferred to stay in Chile with their families.

The invitation was originally sent to the nephew of one of the trapped miners, Ronald Reyes, who passed the news on to his uncle on the day the rescue shaft finally reached the men. His uncle, Mario Gomez, who was 63 and battling with lung disease in the damp half-a-mile below ground, was reported to be "very excited" by the prospect of watching Manchester United in action – if he lived to reach the surface. In the end, all the men were brought out safely after 69 days.

As Sir Bobby greeted the arrivals at Old Trafford, he told them: "You took it in your stride and the whole world was very proud of you." Omar Reygadas, a 56-year-old bulldozer operator, replied: "It's an honour to be at Old Trafford. It's the theatre of dreams and we have only seen it on television. We are very glad and excited to watch the match against Arsenal."

The miners were trapped on 5 August, 2,300 feet underground at the San Jose mine in a remote part of Chile when an access tunnel collapsed. It was feared that they might all be dead, until rescuers made contact by lowering a probe into the mine, 17 days later. The first pictures relayed to the surface showed them in good health and remarkably good spirits.

On 12 October, a "Phoenix" capsule was lowered down a narrow shaft drilled through rock, and the first of the trapped men was winched to safety. The last was pulled out two days later, to ecstatic celebrations at the surface, led by Chile's President, Sebastian Pinera.

The last time Chile had attracted so much attention worldwide was 37 years ago, when Chile's elected government was overthrown and hundreds were killed including the President, Salvador Allende, in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Another famous story about Chile was that the journalist Claud Cockburn claimed in his memoirs to have won a competition for compiling the dullest newspaper headline ever, his winning entry being: "Small Earthquake in Chile: Not Many Dead."

The fortitude displayed by the trapped miners and the skill with which they were rescued has given Chile the best international publicity the country has had in living memory, and turned them into international celebrities – although Tomas Urzua, head of the Chilean government's international press unit, insisted that this was not something being orchestrated by the Chilean government. "They have organised this without government assistance," he said.

In November, several of them visited Los Angeles, where there are plans to turn their ordeal into a Hollywood blockbuster. Their trip to the UK was sponsored by the South American wine producers, Concha Y Toro, who sponsor Manchester United.

Sir Bobby had two reasons to watch the drama of their imprisonment with even more emotive attachment than the ordinary viewer. His father was a miner who spent his entire working life down a pit in Ashington, in Northumberland.

And Sir Bobby has vivid memories of Chile, which he visited with the England squad for the 1962 World Cup, and scored one of the goals that knocked Argentina out of the competition and took England into the quarter-finals.

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