The day a team died: A tragedy for Zambian football

The 1993 Zambia side was the country's best ever but it never realised its potential after being wiped out in a plane crash that should have been averted en route to play Senegal. This weekend the countries meet on what will be an emotional day

At 10pm local time on Saturday, Zambia will walk out to face Senegal at the new stadium in Bata, Equatorial Guinea. It will be the second match at this year's African Cup of Nations, and the minds of most of the crowd may still be on the opening game, which will have just finished at the same stadium. Not Zambian minds, though; they'll be much further away. They'll be thinking of 27 April 1993, when another Zambia team set off to play Senegal in a World Cup qualifier. That team, the best Zambia has ever had and potentially one of the greatest in African history, never arrived.

This will be the 10th time the sides have met since then, but what makes this game particularly poignant is that it was just a few miles south of Bata that their plane went down, crashing into the Atlantic shortly after refuelling in the Gabonese capital, Libreville.

Zambia had announced themselves at the 1988 Olympics, Kalusha Bwalya scoring a hat-trick as they thrashed a strong Italy side 4-0. It was a result that reverberated; this wasn't a 1-0 freak achieved through 89 minutes of defending and a lucky breakaway, it was a win based on complete domination.

Kalusha (Bwalya is such a common surname in Zambia that he's widely known by his first name) was the star of that side, a technically gifted and powerful forward. When he was 20, he was spotted by a Belgian scout and moved from his hometown club of Mufulira to Brugge Cercle and then, after the Olympics, to PSV Eindhoven. It was a transfer that saved his life.

A defeat away to Tunisia in their final qualifier meant Zambia missed out on the 1990 World Cup, but their football generally was lifted by the Olympics. Nkana Red Devils reached the African Champions Cup final in 1990 and Power Rangers won the African Cup-Winners' Cup the following year. The 1980s had seen significant investment in the sport both from the government and the nationalised copper industry, spurred by the fact that the president, Kenneth Kaunda, loved football. Many politicians attach themselves to the game, but his passion was genuine.

He ruled Zambia for 27 years, but by the late 1980s the economy was a mess. Zambia had to withdraw from hosting the 1988 African Nations Cup because of a lack of funds and Kaunda was finally voted out of office in 1991. As the copper mines passed into private hands, funding for football began to dry up.

Travel to away games became increasingly difficult, with the national federation (FAZ) lacking the funds to charter planes or even to pay for seats on passenger aircraft. Frequently they would turn to the Zambian Air Force and ask to borrow a jet. Poverty wasn't just because of economic circumstance; in August 1992, shortly before World Cup qualifying, the chairman of the FAZ, Jabes Zulu, and associate Wilfrid Monani were suspended after funds earned on a tour of Korea vanished.

Zambia won their first two games in the first qualifying phase, but then faced a trip to Madagascar. As so often, they ended up borrowing a Buffalo from the ZAF. When they stopped for refuelling in Malawi, there was a dispute over payment. After hours trapped on the runway, the plane eventually took off again for a five-hour trip over the Indian Ocean. The pilot insisted the players wore their life-jackets. The players joked about it, and Johnson Bwalya took some light-hearted photographs, but there was an awareness that this was not really something to joke about. "The boys," Kalusha said, "always used to say, 'This plane will kill us some day.'"

Zambia lost that game, which led to Samuel Nhdlovu being sacked as coach. His replacement, Godfrey Chitalu, then fell ill, but as he recovered so did the team. But not the FAZ's finances. Flying home on the Buffalo from a Cup of Nations qualifier from Mauritius, young forward Kelvin Mutale spoke to journalist Beauty Lupiya, telling her that even if the plane crashed they'd be safe because it would float. She told him not to be so morbid, but noticed how the plane struggled to gain altitude.

A week later, the players boarded the plane again for the game against Senegal. Kalusha and Charles Musonda of Anderlecht had missed the Mauritius game and so made their own way to west Africa. The plane's captain, Feston M'hone, wanted to fly from Lusaka to Brazzaville, then on to Libreville and Abidjan before finally arriving in Dakar, the sheer number of refuelling stops suggesting how unsuitable a vehicle it was for the journey. There was, as so often, a delay, because as a military craft the Buffalo was denied permission to cross Congolese air space.

The decision was taken to fly directly to Libreville. The Buffalo landed and refuelled. According to the Gabonese minister of transport it had routine checks and then took off again. Two minutes later it exploded, killing all five crew and 25 passengers. Whether the Buffalo floated or not was irrelevant. Mutale, then 23, was one of those killed. Six members of the 1988 Olympic squad, including the goalkeeper Efford Chabala, died. So too did the 19-year-old Moses Chikwalakwala, Zambia's Young Player of the Year in 1992.

There were claims the plane had been shot down by the Gabonese military, mistaking it for an invasion force. Diplomatic relations between Gabon and Zambia were shattered, neither country wanting to pay for an investigation and each trying to put the blame on the other. Being a military plane, there was no black-box flight recorder. Eventually, in 2003, the official report was released. It was inconclusive, but blamed a defect in the left engine.

Kalusha became the centrepiece of a new team, which became known as the Chipolopolo, the Copper-headed Bullets. Remarkably, under two Danish coaches and then the former Sunderland player, Ian Porterfield, a young side rallied. Kalusha scored an equaliser in Zimbabwe that took Zambia to the Nations Cup. They fought back in World Cup qualifying, but were denied an emotional qualification when they lost to Morocco in their final game. Twice Zambia hit the post, and they also protested about the refereeing of Jean-Fidel Diramba (from Gabon).

"Innuendoes against Gabon," wrote the Times of Zambia, "will continue to fly for as long as memories of the crash, the frustrated searchers, the almost triumphant grin of a referee named Diramba, linger on in the Zambian mind." It's just as well the draw for this tournament placed Zambia in Equatorial Guinea not in Gabon, who are co-hosts.

There was still the 1994 Cup of Nations. Zambia were impressive, seemed to have momentum. They reached the semi-final, and beat Mali 4-0. But the Nigeria of Sunday Oliseh, Rashidi Yekini and Jay-Jay Okocha were too strong in the final and won 2-1. They have never come as close to a major title since.

Kalusha played till his mid-30s, had a stint as coach and is now president of FAZ. "People cannot help but think about what might have been," Kalusha said. "We were a team with confidence, who wanted to reach the World Cup and were ready for it. We desperately want to achieve something still."

Zambia were unlucky to go out to Nigeria on penalties in the quarter-final two years ago. Their charismatic coach, Hervé Renard, has returned and there is genuine optimism once again. But Saturday is a day for remembrance.

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