Chipolopolo return to scene of tragedy

2012-02-09 13:02

Libreville – Zambian players will make an emotional return to the Gabonese capital of Libreville when they take to the field for Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final against Ivory Coast.

Not only will it be their third final at the biennial event of African football, but poignantly, it marks a return to the scene of Zambian football’s greatest tragedy.

In April 1993 the Zambian national team played an Afcon qualifier in Mauritius, which they won 3-0.

They were then scheduled to play a World Cup qualifier a few days later in Dakar and en-route to Senegal their plane stopped in Libreville to refuel.

Shortly after take-off, one of the engines caught fire and the pilot is then said to have switched off the other engine, causing the plane to plunge into the sea, killing all 30 people on board.

Among the passengers on the flight were 18 players of the national team, which at the time was considered as one of the top African teams.

A worldwide outpouring of grief followed the tragedy and as a newly-assembled Zambian team played in qualifiers for both the 1994 Afcon and the World Cup, they had support from all over.

They came within a point of reaching the World Cup and made it to the Afcon finals in Tunisia, where they topped their group before beating Senegal and Mali to become a popular finalist.

Although they were beaten 2-1 by Nigeria, the way they had come back from tragedy earned them admiration throughout the world.

They finished third two years later in South Africa, but since then, Zambian football has struggled to reach the success they seemed capable of achieving with the team that was killed.

Former player Kalusha Bwalya, who missed the plane crash as he was playing for PSV Eindhoven at the time and had made his own arrangements to travel to Senegal, has been credited with the turnaround in the Chipolopolo’s fortunes.

Bwalya, who now heads the Football Association of Zambia and is also an executive of the Confederation of African Football, said before this year’s tournament that as captain of the team that died, he would always remember his teammates.

“Of course our history would not be complete without the Gabon air disaster,” he said.

“It’s something that is part of the history of Zambian football because we had a fantastic team. I think the boys (current team) know all about what happened but most of them were too young to remember it.”

They will also be too young to remember that Bwalya was instrumental in one of the greatest moments in the team’s history.

In 1988 in South Korea, Bwalya tore the Italian Olympic side that had players like Ciro Ferrara, Luigi de Agostini, Gianluca Pagliuca and Andrea Carnevale to shreds, scoring three goals as his Chipolopolo side won 4-0 and qualified for the quarterfinals.

He has also had a stint as national team coach, including being in charge of the side for the 2006 Fifa World Cup qualifiers when he famously decided to bring himself on in the second half in a match against Liberia at home in Lusaka with the score standing at 0-0.

The then 41-year-old went on to score the only goal of the match in injury time with one of his trademark free kicks.

Bwalya resigned as head coach after the team failed to progress beyond the first round at the 2006 Afcon, but kept his administrative duties.

The current crop of Zambian players is aware of the role that the 1988 African Footballer of the Year has played.

“The long plan for success began with the president Kalusha Bwalya when he was vice-president (of the association),” Chipolopolo captain Christopher Katongo said.

“In 2008 the team was eliminated in the first round, but he was the president and he insisted that we keep this team.”

The team has now repaid that faith by qualifying for the final, thus being able to honour Bwalya’s former teammates who died in that plane crash 19 years ago.

Bwalya said: “It is fitting that this team has done well and will represent the country in Libreville.”

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