It was an overwhelming tragedy for a team, for a nation, for families and for the beautiful game. Nineteen years ago, a few hundred metres off the coast of Libreville, Gabon, a Zambian Air Force charter flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just after refueling in the Gabonese capital on the way to Senegal
All on board, including coach Godfrey Chitalu and 18 players, the national team of Zambia, died. Today a new young team that rose to take their place won the 2012 African Cup of Nations in the new Stade de l'Amitie in Libreville, Gabon over the favourites, Cote D'Ivoire. On April 27 1993 the plane crashed with 30 people on board. Kelvin Mutale had just scored a hat-trick in an African Nations Cup qualifier in Lusaka against Mauritius. They were expected to win in Senegal in a FIFA World Cup qualifier and reach the finals in USA in 1994.
After an underwhelming 0-0 regular and extra time contest, including a missed penalty from Chelsea super star Didier Drogba, they took the cup with an 8-7 penalty shoot out on Sunday, for the first time. Chipolopolo is translated from Copper Bullets. Kolo Tore and Gervinho missed for The Elephants while Zambia's Rainford Kalaba blasted over the bar. Herve Renard the 43 year old coach from Aix-les-Bains is in his second spell with Zambia after Angola, plus Shanghai, Cambridge United and US Alger,and says he is going to stick around this time.
The nation, named after the Zambesi River which is the southern border of this landlocked country, became independent from Britain in 1964, when it had been called Northern Rhodesia since 1911. When I was a schoolboy I used to have a pen pal in Kitwe in the copper belt and we swapped football programmes, including Northern Rhodesian international matches v visiting British touring teams.
After the tragedy the former Chelsea manager Ian Porterfield was hired and scrambled a team together which lost in the final of the African Cup of Nations the following year. After that the team was in the doldrums for many years. Last Friday the current team gathered on the beach and cast flowers into the surf. The 1993 team captain Kalusha Bwalya was with them. He was playing for PSV Eindhoven and was flying from Holland to meet up with the team in Dakar, Senegal. He was on the beach with the young team, and is now President of the Football Association of Zambia.
Monday afternoon the winners arrived home as heroes at Lusaka's Kenneth Kaunda International Airport with Kaunda, the first president, and another ex president Rupiah Banda, both massive football fans, part of the welcoming committee. Captain Christopher Katonga exited the plane holding aloft the golden trophy. Fans dressed in the national colours of green, red, orange, black lined the route to The Lusaka Showgrounds for national celebrations.
A dream for the nation and for the beautiful game has come true.