Remember the Class of ‘93
Harare – Zambia did not come to a standstill at last weekend’s anniversary of the death of its footballing heroes back in 1993.
But 20 years after the plane crash off the coast of Gabon, the pain of that disaster remains alive and tears continue to flow for those who paid the ultimate price.
Chipolopolo’s stunning 2012 Africa Cup of Nations triumph – in the very same Gabonese city where the ill-fated chartered military plane took off for the last time before plunging into the Atlantic – has healed some of the emotional wounds.
But questions still remain among the families who lost their loved ones and those who lost their football heroes about what really went wrong that night in Gabon.
It’s a measure of how that team is held in high esteem in Zambia that many football fans believe it was the best collection of stars ever to represent their nation. For many people, the class of ’93 takes pride of place even ahead of the heroes who brought the Nations Cup trophy to Lusaka.
Kalusha Bwalya, the greatest footballer to emerge from Zambia, was supposed to be on that plane but survived because – unlike the home-based members of Chipolopolo – he was scheduled to link up with the team in Senegal from his base in Holland.
Now the Football Association of Zambia president, Bwalya was one of the architects of Chipolopolo’s stunning AFCON victory.
Bwalya remains both a face of the tragedy and a face of the future of Zambian football.
Last week he used social media to talk about the disaster two decades ago.
“20 Years ago since the Gabon Air Disaster which deprived us of a very talented Zambia National Soccer Team. It seems like yesterday,” said Kalusha.
“Have only wonderful memories of the boys. Spent a 'lifetime' with the Team. Only God knows what that team would have achieved. World Cup? Yes, I think so. In fact, I have no doubt.
“Happy to have been around to see the Class of 2012 bring home Gold at last from Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Can we go all the way to Brazil 2014? That will be the ultimate Honor and Tribute for the Fallen Heroes. May their soul rest in eternal peace.”
Zambia invited Zimbabwe for a special commemorative match to honour those who perished in 1993.
The hosts won 2-0 in Lusaka before an appreciative crowd, and such are the close ties between the two countries that the game was broadcast live simultaneously in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Zimbabweans cheered Chipolopolo’s final victory against Cote d’Ivoire at AFCON 2012 as if it was their own success.
And in a country where the oldest football club, Highlanders, is a led by Zambian coach Kevin Kaindu, and its richest club, FC Platinum, also has a Zambian coach in Tennant Chilumba, the bond that unites them when it comes to football is clearly evident.
Derby Mankinka, one of the players who perished in that disaster, had charmed Zimbabwean football fans during a spell here playing for Darryn T. Those who saw him play in the local stadiums remember a genius who was probably the best of the foreign crop that has ever played here.
Just as the Zambians, Zimbabweans often debate what the ’93 Chipolopolo side would have achieved if the cream of its team had not been wiped out.
The world, too, agrees that this was a great football team that most likely would have qualified for the ‘94 FIFA World Cup and probably won the AFCON in the same year had fate not ruled otherwise.
FIFA dedicated a special blog on its official website last week in the countdown to the commemoration of the Gabon crash.
“At the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Seoul 1988, a Kalusha Bwalya hat-trick had propelled them to a 4-0 thumping of an Italy side including Ciro Ferrera, Luigi de Agostini and Andrea Carnevale en route to topping Group B,” read the blog.
“That same year that same player had beaten the likes of Roger Milla, Rabah Madjer and George Weah to become the first Zambian to be crowned the African Footballer of the Year.
“The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) finished third at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1990, and had recorded first and third placed finishes at the two previous CECAFA Cups.
“Things were even blooming for Zambian clubs – Nkana reached the final of the African Champions’ Cup – a precursor to the CAF Champions League – in 1990, while Power Dynamos won the African Cup Winners’ Cup the following year.
“Passion for football was indescribable, and confidence was sky high that Zambian class would be parading itself on the sport’s biggest platform in 1994.
“All Zambia had to do was emerge top of a three-team group including continental giants Morocco and Senegal to book a ticket to the USA.
“First up was a trip to Dakar, and coach Godfrey Chitalu, his backroom staff and players were in jubilant mood, feeding off the buzz of their compatriots, as they boarded the DHC-5D Buffalo aircraft in Lusaka 20 years ago today.
“They felt they were poised to continue their fairytale adventure from obscurity to the Fifa World Cup. They were actually, by harrowing contest, set to partake in a tragedy of inexplicable proportions.
“For shortly after the plane’s second stop-off in Libreville, Gabon, it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 30 passengers – 25 of whom were Zambia national team players or coaches.”
And 20 years on many questions remain.
Why was a plane that apparently had serious technical issues allowed to take off? Why has the official report of the disaster not been made public to this day?
“The government has to do the right thing by releasing the report – nothing more, nothing less,” widow Joyce Chabala, whose husband Efford was the first choice goalkeeper and died in that crash, told the BBC in Zambia at the weekend.
A few months after the tragedy, Joyce gave birth to twins, Memory and David, appropriately named given the challenges she faced then. They are now 20-years-old and have never known their father except through the reminiscences of people who watched him between the posts.
An official report into the crash laid the blame on a faulty engine that caught fire after take-off, while the pilot was also blamed for shutting down the wrong engine.
We might never know what happened that night in Gabon.
All we can do is take a bow and honour those Zambians who died while in service of their motherland.