Zambia remembers tragedy

On the most significant day in Zambian history, a chartered military plane carrying the country’s national team plunged into the sea shortly after take-off in Gabon in the early hours of April 28 1993. Thirty people died, 18 of them players in the national team, when the Zambian Air Force plane ‘ chartered for the World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar ‘ went down and crashed into the sea. As the majority of the continent was deep in its sleep on a warm early winter night in Libreville, the biggest tragedy to hit a national football team in Africa unfolded on the shores of the Atlantic. A week earlier the Zambian national team had travelled to Mauritius, on the same flight ‘ a Buffalo CT 15 ‘ for a Nations Cup finals qualifier, which they won 3-0 courtesy of a hattrick by Kelvin Mutale. Subsequent reports after the tragedy in Gabon indicated that the plane struggled on the flight to Mauritius and a number of players were concerned about their safety on that trip. Those reports were given further credibility by an official report into the plane crash that blamed a mechanical fault in the left engine of the military aircraft. The report said the pilots might have switched off the functioning right engine by mistake because of a “poor indicator light bulb” causing the plane to lose all power and crash. The report said that the loss of power and lift confirmed the failure of both engines. It was released three years ago ‘ exactly 10 hours after the disaster. Up to this day there are still doubts within the Zambian community about the real cause of the plane crash. Year after year the nation has searched for answers and, in all cases, got very little. And the country’s football legend Kalusha Bwalya, who only avoided the disaster because he was due to fly straight to Senegal from his base in the Netherlands, could not have captured the mood of his countrymen any better. “Not a day goes by without us thinking of our lost friends,” he said in a statement on the 10th anniversary of the disaster. “It is hard to believe that 10 years have passed since that tragic night when the unthinkable happened to Zambia in those dark Gabonese skies over the Atlantic Ocean. “Lost in an instant (after) midnight on 28 April 1993, was a cream of a nation long regarded among Africa’s footballing elite. “Death cruelly robbed Zambia of talent, both established and emerging, as well as its brightest coaching and administrative minds. “They were and still are heroes to a nation – fathers, brothers and to us friends and comrades. “We were on a roll as a team when fate decreed otherwise. What we the survivors were left with instead, were the agonising and never ending notions of what may have been.” He also used the occasion to ask some very difficult questions, some of which have become part of the fabric of Zambian society. Thirteen years down the line, Zambians still wonder what their team would have achieved had the tragedy not happened off the coast of Gabon. Some believe that their team would have qualified for the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States, something which really would have been very, very possible. Some believe that their team would have won the ’94 Nations Cup finals in Tunisia, something that would have been very, very possible too. “How would Zambia had faired if tragedy had not struck?” asked Bwalya in his statement. “Where would Zambian football be today if Efford Chabala, Easton Mulenga, Derby Mankinka, Wisdom Chansa, Kelvin Mutale had lived? “Chances are that we would have reached the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States from our qualifying group which comprised Senegal and Morocco. “Zambia’s rebuilt squad beat both sides in Lusaka, drew away with Senegal and lost by one goal in a close and decisive match with Morocco in Casablanca. “I would like to imagine and I am confident that the outcome in Morocco would have been different with the old team. “I would also like to imagine that the team would have shocked a few people in the World Cup finals. “At any rate, it was in homage to our fallen heroes that the rebuilt squad battled its way to the 1994 African Nations Cup final in Tunisia. “Again luck was not with us as Zambia lost 2-1 to Nigeria in the final in a memorable game. “What would have been? Ten years later one wishes we would turn back the clock. Zambian football will never be the same again. “The crash was a huge setback that continues to be felt today. “Though my own playing career is over, my football existence continues to be defined by the events of 28 April 1993. “It was a horrible event whose shock still reverberates in Zambia, and I am sure in many parts of the soccer world.” Bwalya could not have said it any better. For the Zambian team that perished was quite a powerful force which could have won the 1994 Nations Cup, a team that would have crossed the final line against the Nigerians and a team that would certainly have charmed the world in the United States. That the Nigerians, who struggled to beat Zambia in the final in Tunisia, went on to dazzle the world in the United States and come within just a few minutes from qualifying for the quarter-finals only shows the brilliance of the Chipolopolo team. And if you try and mix the adventurism of the rebuilt team and the experience of their comrades who perished in that disaster then you can understand that it would have been a very formidable team. The rebuilt team came to Harare, just a few months after the tragedy, for the final Nations Cup qualifier needing to avoid defeat and make the finals in Tunisia. And to their credit they held the Warriors to a 1-1 draw with Bwalya fittingly grabbing the goal that sent his country to Tunisia by heading home with just 11 minutes left. But while the entire world virtually rallied behind Zambia in 1994 and there was remarkable success for the team, the effects of the disaster was too much to bear and soon the game in that country began to feel their massive loss. From the lofty heights of playing in the Nations Cup finals in 1994, Chipolopolo lost their direction in the jungles of international football as the weight of the expectations of a grieving nation finally caught up with the team. Gradually the team entered into decline and a once powerful force struggled on the continent. At their worst, the Zambians failed to qualify for the Nations Cup finals in Tunisia two years ago ‘ exactly a decade after reaching the final in the same country. They watched from a distance as long-time bitter rivals Zimbabwe finally ended their lengthy wait and qualified for the Nations Cup finals after a 24-year wait. They also watched as South Africa replaced them as the most powerful football nation in this region by qualifying for two successive World Cup finals in France in ’98 and Korea/Japan in 2002. In their time of need, the Zambians, as they have always done, turned to a familiar face in search of salvation and called Bwalya back into the thick of things. Back as national coach Bwalya started to rebuild a young team and there were instant rewards as Chipolopolo qualified for the Nations Cup finals in Egypt earlier this year. They also had a fine challenge for a place at the 2006 World Cup finals that only came to an end in the penultimate range of qualifiers when they lost 0-1 at home to Senegal. Along the journey in the race for the World Cup qualifiers, Zambia made an emotional trip to Senegal ‘ where that Class of ’93 had been destined to arrive before their plane came down in Gabon. When Chipolopolo arrived in Dakar, after an uneventful flight, it was virtually impossible not to mention the tragedy in Gabon. “Our football will always be associated with the fallen heroes,” Bwalya told journalists. And we hope that we represent the will that they had to go to the World Cup and to be African champions. “This is the dream that every Zambian has.” The Zambians did not fly directly from Lusaka to Dakar this time around. Instead they went to the Netherlands for a training camp and then boarded a plane that took them straight from Europe to Senegal. Bwalya, though, dismissed suggestions that the unusual route was chosen in an effort to avoid the route taken by their fallen comrades. “It is not for emotional reasons, no. It was a question of flight connections. We would have lost three days either way if we had gone back to Zambia,” said Bwalya. On Friday, Zambia will remember that day in April 1993 that changed its football forever. They will remember a goalkeeper called Efford Chabala who was as good as they come. They will remember Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu, arguably the greatest player to come out of their country, who was a brilliant forward and died in that crash trying to serve his country in another role as national coach. They will remember Alex Chola – another of the brilliant crop of the ’70s and ’80s era – who was probably the most naturally talented player to emerge from their country. He was a member of the technical team when he died in that crash. Across the Zambezi in Zimbabwe they will remember the skills of midfielder Derby Mankinka who spent a short stint in this country playing for DT Africa and became the toast of this nation with his skill. He, too, died in that crash. For Zambia this is another day to remember those heroes ‘ the generation of players who could have conquered the continent had they been given a chance to live longer. The Fallen Heroes Efford Chabala, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Eston Mulenga, Robert Watyakeni, Derby Mankinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Godfrey Kangwa, Wisdom Chansa, Kelvin Mutale, Numba Mwila, Richard Mwanza, Timothy Mwitwa, Patrick Banda, Kenan Simambe, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Wynter Mumba Coaches: Godfrey Chitalu, Alex Chola Team Doctor: Wilson Mtonga Officials: Micheal Mwape, Nelson Zimba, Wilson Sakala Journalist: Joseph Salimu Aircraft Crew: Colonel Fenton Sakala, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Mubanga, E.S. Nambote; Copilot: T. Sakala

April 2006
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