Zambia mourns its friends and football heroes: Mike Hall reports from a grief-stricken Lusaka after one of Africa's worst sporting disasters

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ZAMBIA buries its national football team tomorrow just outside the Independence Stadium in the capital Lusaka where most of the players who died in the air crash last week frequently entertained tens of thousands of fans with some of the best skills in Africa.

Thirty coffins carrying the remains of those who died, 18 of them the country's leading players and five of them the best coaches and officials, are due to arrive in Zambia today. They will be given a state funeral and a monument will be erected outside the stadium.

A council bulldozer yesterday began preparing the site and tents were being put up to shelter the thousands of mourners who are travelling to Lusaka to attend the country's biggest funeral. Messages of condolence arrived from around the world.

For a nation intoxicated by football, the loss of the national team has seemed almost impossible for many to bear. One of my friends, a young businessman, collapsed on to the floor and broke down in uncontrollable sobs. Not usually given to showing any signs of emotion, he wailed, tears streaming down his face, over the death of his football heroes, most of whom he had known personally.

'They were my friends. They were my family,' he cried. 'I've never felt like this before. When my father died I never shed tears like this. Even when my young brother died, I didn't cry like this. I argued for Robert (Watyakeni) to be included in the team, only to be sent to his death,' he said, bursting into tears again.

Dennis Liwewe, Zambia's most famous football commentator, appeared on television with a moving tribute to the men who died in one of the world's worst football disasters and Zambia's worst air crash. Unable to control his emotions he, too, burst into tears. They were not alone. People wept in the streets. Some walked out of their offices, unable to work when they realised the full horror of what had happened. Even those who are not fans feel a deep sense of grief at the loss of so many great players who had dominated the game for the last four or five years. Some, like the national coach Godfrey Chitalu, once captain of Zambia, had been household names for much longer.

Margaret Chilulumo, a mechanical engineer, said: 'I feel so awful, so terrible that it is like losing the whole Zambian nation.'

Thousands of university and college students took to the streets and sang funeral songs and recited poems outside the offices of the Football Association of Zambia in the city centre. They then marched to Freedom Statue, a monument to the struggle for independence from colonial British rule, and chanted: 'We want our Zambia back, we want our Zambia back.'

State-run television and radio have been playing solemn music and broadcasting cancellations of sporting and entertainment events as the country goes into a week of official mourning.

Newspapers have been filled with details of the grisly rescue operation in Gabon, lengthy profiles of the players and analyses of what the tragedy means for Zambian football. Copies have sold out within hours even though street vendors charged more than double the cover price.

'We have lost a whole generation of world-class football players just as we had a good chance of making it to the World Cup and the finals of the Africa Cup,' Dipak Patel, the sports minister, said. 'It will take us years to rebuild a team to match the standard of the one that has perished.'

Despite appeals from the government not to apportion blame, few were able to hide their anger at the Football Association of Zambia and the government. The use of an old, short-haul military transport plane to carry the players has been sharply criticised. And the irony of Zambian government ministers and investigators using a presidential DC-8 to collect the bodies has added to the sense of injustice.

A Zambian national team player, Albert Bwalya, a striker for Kaiser Chiefs in South Africa who was left out of the squad, said: 'They wanted a successful soccer team but they weren't prepared to look after them. You can't take a small plane all that way. Any other country would have taken connecting flights with commercial airlines, but FAZ wanted to save costs . . . I will never forgive them for what has happened.'