Remembering Zambia’s air crash tragedy . . . and the passing of the voice of their national game

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE  – By sheer coincidence, fate ensured that Zambia would lose the voice of its national game in the same month the country was plunged into its darkest hour when its national football team perished in that plane crash off the coast of Gabon on April 27, 1993.

Thursday marked the 24th anniversary of that fateful day when Zambia was shaken to the core when news filtered through that the chartered military aircraft, taking Chipolopolo to a ’94 World Cup qualifier in Senegal, had crashed shortly after take-off in Libreville, killing everyone on board.

Thirty people, including 18 players – including a generation of the country’s finest footballers – were killed when the twin-engine Airforce of Zambia plane came down into the Atlantic, as it took off from Libreville in Gabon after the second of its three scheduled refueling stops, on that fateful day.

“I was at home in the morning. At six my son Ponga Liwele (an international journalist who is now the secretary-general of the Football Association of Zambia) came in the bedroom and opened the bedroom – his father’s and mother’s bedroom,’’ Dennis Liwewe, the legendary commentator dubbed the voice of football in Zambia, told China Central Television in a documentary, dubbed ‘Tragedy To Triumph,’ produced to reflect on that tragedy.

“(He) just opened saying the national team has crashed in Gabon. What? He banged the door and he was crying. “Ponga what is it?” He says the BBC have announced that the Zambian national team has crashed.

“And then, news started coming in; of course ,they got their correspondents in Libreville, Gabon and I gave my mind – the feeling at home and everything and I was crying on the radio, then I appeared on television in Zambia.’’

It was an emotional broadcast that has become the soundtrack of that tragedy.

“Those 18 gallant Zambian players, one journalist, five officials and five crew members from Zambia Air Force consumed in the red and yellow fireball explosion, their bodies scattered in pieces when the Zambia air force buffalo plane crashed into the sea, two kilometres off from the coast of Gabon on their way to Senegal for the Group B Africa’s World Cup qualifying match in Dakar after stopover in Libreville,’’ thundered Liwewe.

“I was supposed to be on that plane – on that plane.’’

And, as fate would have it, the legendary Liwewe – whose football commentary on radio made such a huge impression, not only in Zambia, but across southern Africa as it shaped and influenced the careers of many who followed into his footsteps – would die in the very same month that plane went down.

On April 22, 2014, just two years after Zambia celebrated its finest sporting hour when Chipolopolo stunned the world to be crowned champions of Africa with the triumph, ironically, being delivered in the Gabonese city that had become synonymous with the country’s darkest hour, Liwewe lost his battle against liver complications in a Lusaka hospital.

Interestingly, Liwewe – whose work was honoured with the prestigious Order of the Distinguished Service by the country’s founding father Kenneth Kaunda in 1977 – hailed from Malawi where he was born on the shores of Lake Malawi before arriving in Zambia to work on the copperbelt as a journalist.

A teacher by profession, he transformed himself into the country’s most authoritative football commentator and, for more than four decades, he was the golden voice of football in Zambia.

His work in football meant he also travelled around the world as he covered his beloved Chipolopolo. He was passionately loyal to his Zambian national football team.

“When the Zambian player footballer wears that green jersey with the eagle here, the symbol of our national identity, immediately he is given a shirt with the eagle here, he stops to be a human being,’’ he told China Central Television.

I met Liwewe a number of times, during the course of our adventures, most notably at the old Independence Stadium in Lusaka, which used to be the home of Chipolopolo, in 1995.

I was on duty, covering Zimbabwean football club Blackpool – playing in their maiden Africa Cup Winners Cup campaign just a year after their formation – where they had a second round, second leg date against Zambian club Kabwe Warriors.

The Zambian team, five-time champions in their country and five-time winners of the Zambia’s flagship knockout tournament, were seasoned campaigners who had reached the quarter-finals of the CAF Champions Cup in 1972 and 1973 when their attack was led by the legendary Godfrey “Ucar’’ Chitalu, whom some regard as the finest footballer to come out of Zambia.

In 1972, Chitalu scored 107 goals, for club and country, which was thrust into the global limelight when Zambian football authorities challenged FIFA’s claims that Argentine superstar Lionel Messi’s 92 goals for Barcelona and Argentina in 2012 was a world record for goals scored in a calendar                                                          year.

Kabwe Warriors, who had thrashed Township Rollers 4-1 at home in their previous round in the 1995 African Cup Winners Cup, were odds-on favourites to thrash Blackpool, especially after the two teams had settled for a goalless draw in Harare.

But the Zambian side were humiliated 1-3 in their backyard at the Independence Stadium, with striker George Mbwando scoring a hattrick, and after the match I met Liwewe and asked him for his comments.

“It’s a disaster,” he thundered. “A national disaster, how could this happen here, of all places, at the Independence Stadium? Ohhhh, how do you explain this?’’

Such was his passion for everything related to Zambian football.

At least, others will say, he will always cherish the fact he lived long enough to be around when Chipolopolo were crowned champions of Africa.

“By fate of happenings of history where did Zambia win the Africa Cup? It was in 2012 on the shores where we lost our boys – exactly in Gabon,’’ he told China Central Television.

“Was it a coincidence, was it the spirit of those boys?”

April 2017
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