Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Zambia triumphs near site of greatest tragedy

By Matthew Pentz
Copy edited and produced by Taylor Pool

Nearly two decades ago, the tiny African nation of Gabon was the site of the darkest chapter in Zambian soccer history.

The finest team that Zambia had ever produced boarded a plane in the capital city of Libreville en route to a 1994 World Cup qualifier. The plane took off before plunging into the sea, killing everyone on board and robbing a nation of its heroes.

Photo taken from http://www.zambianfootball.net
The current national team is hoping Gabon will play another role in the minds of their countrymen: the site of the greatest soccer triumph in Zambian history.

After rolling through the group stages tops in Group A, the Zambia Copper Bullets comfortably defeated Sudan 3-0 in the quarterfinals and bounced tournament favorite Ghana 1-0 in the semis. The upset win earned Zambia a spot in the finals against the Ivory Coast, to be played in Libreville.

“When we go to Gabon and play in the final … it will be something special for the country and for us,” midfielder Isaac Chansa said. “It will be a very emotional game. So far, God has been with us during the games we have been playing.”

Zambians reflect on the past
Until now, the names Gabon and Libreville meant nothing but painful memories.

“Just the mention of the country Gabon for many people, (it is) that tragedy that comes to mind, nothing else,” says Zambia Daily Mail editor Nebat Mbele.

For Mbele, the plane crash hit harder than most. He had become close with the team as a young sports reporter with the Daily Mail. He remembers vividly the sorrow of his nation.

“The reaction in Zambia then was a lot of shock,” he said. “Not a lot of people wanted to believe that it had happened because it was personal, more than football. When it first happened, people were praying hard that there were survivors on the plane.

“When it trickled through that everyone on board had died, there was a collective (sadness) throughout the whole country – all sectors of society, politicians and people in the villages and so on.”
Current soccer federation president Kalusha Bwalya was one of the lucky ones. He was a star striker on squad in 1993, but was playing club soccer in the Netherlands and avoided the fatal trip.

The success of the current Zambian team is a natural extension of the mission of his former teammates.

“We are proud of the history that the boys left before the air disaster,” Bwalya said. “When you talk to the people on the street, they remember a lot of good things that the boys did, which is great.

“We have a history that we cannot run away from and can’t avoid.”

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the soccer team was a source of hope, against all odds. A replacement team, led by Bwalya, came within a game of qualifying for the World Cup and reached the final of the 1994 African Cup of Nations before falling to Nigeria.

The long-term fallout from the disaster left the nation and the soccer program struggling. Copper prices – the main staple of the Zambian economy – plummeted, leading to disillusionment with the government and wide-ranging poverty. The national team couldn’t reach the highs of the early ‘90s without their golden generation.

The nation and its team is in recovery
Things are changing in Zambia for the better. A new president, Michael Sata, came to power last year, bringing with him promises for a brighter future.

“The combination of the changing of government, the economy looking positive and the team, it makes the people very happy. It is boosting their identity,” Hikabwa Chipande, a leading sport historian in Zambia currently doing his PhD at Michigan State University in the United States, said.

Things are looking up for the national team as well, as evidenced by Zambia’s first berth in a Cup of Nations final since the Bwalya-led replacement team’s miracle run almost two decades ago.

Captain Christopher Katongo and striker Emmanuel Mayuka are both tied for the tournament’s goal scoring lead with three each, and their attacking threat has added potency to a team high in unity but lacking in international stars.

The success has drawn a flattering comparison from a high source.

“We have given tribute to the class of 1993,” Bwalya said, “I’m absolutely certain that the boys are not far from the form that the 1993 players used to play. It’s wonderful for us to be able to come back and try to bring the memories of the 1993 team back on the field.”

Back in Zambia, a nation for whom soccer has always meant more than most, the victories have inspired the people.

“Every time we win, there are wild celebrations all over the country,” Benedict Tembo, a deputy production editor at the Daily Mail, said.
Photo taken from http://www.zambianfootball.net/
“With football, it inspires a nation. After a victory like that, people forget the problems they have. They forget about their trials and tribulations and just celebrate.”

After the win against Ghana, Zambia has the look of a team of destiny. The Black Stars and their impressive cast of European-based players dominated much of the game, but failed to turn their chances into goals. Mayuka made them pay with a curling shot from the edge of the area, and now all that stands between the Zambians and their first title is an Ivory Coast team also stocked with international superstars.

For Bwayla, it means a dream final near the place of his greatest nightmare.

“Some of us will be more emotional about it than other people, but the Zambian people have been waiting. They look forward to that day,” he said, “It will be a great day for Zambia.”

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