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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent