Bwalya believes Zambia can recreate glory days

Kalusha Bwalya needs no reminding about the significance of next month's African Nations Cup final being held in Libreville.

Now president of the Football Association of Zambia, it's nearly 19 years since he learned that the military aircraft carrying the majority of his team-mates in the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) squad to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal had crashed into the sea, just 500 metres from the airport in the Gabonese capital.

All 18 players on board – several of them from Zambia's golden generation that had reached the quarter-finals of the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 – and their coach, Godfrey Chitalu, lost their lives, with Bwalya only spared his because he was on duty with PSV Eindhoven in Holland.

Investigations later found that the plane used had previously been out of service for five months, with the official report in 2003 blaming a faulty left engine and pilot fatigue for the disaster.

Yet while his country mourned as state television showed harrowing images of the players' coffins laid out on the tarmac at Lusaka airport, Bwalya set about building a new team that came within 90 minutes of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup only five months after the accident.

A slender defeat in Morocco denied the second-string side hastily assembled by ex-Chelsea manager Ian Porterfield, although they did make it all the way to the African Nations Cup final in Tunisia a few months later, losing 2-1 to World Cup-bound Nigeria.

That remains Zambia's best finish in the tournament but, after reaching the quarter-finals in Angola two years ago, a nation is daring to dream again. But Bwalya is wary of placing too much expectation on Frenchman Hérve Renard's squad, who start the tournament in the same group as co-hosts Equitorial Guinea.

"Our history would not be complete without the Gabon air disaster but I don't want the team to feel under any extra pressure to do something special," admitted the 1988 African player of the year, now 48 and a member of the Confederation of African Football's executive committee and deputy chairman of Fifa's 2014 World Cup Task Force.

"Of course, in the back of our minds we know it would be great if we can make it all the way to Libreville because we would have done something important. I think the boys know all about what happened but most of them were too young to remember it.

"For lots of us older people, we will get emotional should we make it to Gabon [after the group stage]. It would mean a lot for everyone back home but there is still a lot of football to be played and there is already enough pressure on the boys. We want them to leave the sentimental part to us. Hopefully this year's squad can create their own history."

With families of the crash victims continuing to lobby the Zambian government to find out why the plane was allowed to leave Lusaka in the first place, the shadow of 1993 still hangs over the country. On the pitch, the performances of a young squad based mainly across Africa's domestic leagues under Renard – once manager of Cambridge United – have given cause for optimism for the new generation.

Striker Emmanuel Mayuka, 21, is the team's rising star having joined Swiss side Young Boys in 2010 and attracted interest from both Newcastle and Fulham. A good indication of whether they are equipped to go all the way should come in the first match next Saturday – fittingly against a Senegal side led by Newcastle United's Demba Ba – but Bwalya expects all the pressure to be on their opponents, who he believes are the best in the competition.

"They have everything to lose because of the team they have," he said. "Individually, Senegal's stars have done fantastically in Europe and we will know all about the quality of their strikers. They are a new generation with lots of ambition and, man for man, they have the best squad in the whole tournament. If we can get something from that game it will give us a good idea of what we can achieve."

A penalty shoot-out defeat to Nigeria in the quarter-finals two years ago broke Chipolopolo hearts. A miss by Thomas Nyrienda denied Zambia a first semi-final since 1996 – a record that Bwalya believes could easily be ended this time around. "It's a tough group but if we can get through to the second stage again then this team would have arrived," he said.

"We have the individual talent, plus a good blend of youth and experience. But most importantly, the players have a great appetite for the game. I think this team is as good as any other that has represented Zambia." Apart from one, that is.

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