The day the Zambian soccer died

Eight goals to seven was the result of a nerve-raking one hundred and twenty minutes of a soccer final that defined the 2012 African Cup of Nations against Ivory Coast on 12 February 2012. Other African countries have other sports apart from soccer. Not Zambia. In this friendly central African country soccer is almost the only sport that people talk about. So, it is understandable that the whole country went into a long and wild celebration. It was in fact a national catharsis.

I was not there to see and participate in the celebrations, but I was in Lusaka almost twenty years earlier when, on 28 April 1993, Zambia woke up with the news that they no longer had a soccer team! Known as the Chipolopolo, they were a very promising Zambia national team. At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, they had thrashed Italy 4–0!

They had departed the day before to face Senegal for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier but never arrived. The Zambia Airforce plane the Football Association of Zambia had commissioned developed engine trouble and it crashed after taking off from Libreville, less than a kilometre from the shoreline of Gabon.

All thirty people on board perished, including eighteen players, the team coach, support staff and plane crew. Luckily, two players were spared this tragic end. They were Chipolopolo’s captain, Kalusha Bwalya (Kalusha) that was traveling directly from The Netherlands (he played for PSV) and Charles Musonda (playing for Anderlecht), injured.

Somehow, I missed the bad news until I arrived at the FAO office and found an abnormal somber atmosphere and several of the usually cheerful people crying while most had red eyes. It was Angie, a young secretary that broke the news to me “The Zambia soccer died yesterday” she said with intense sadness. I was stunned as I was following the good results of the Chipolopolo and it had become (and still is) my favourite team in Africa. I realized that this was probably the biggest tragedy that independent Zambia had suffered.

So it was that I attended a two-day funeral, the saddest job of my entire career. The ceremony took place at the soccer Independence Stadium on 2 and 3 May 1993. Below, I include the programmes of both the State Funeral and Liturgy as well as the list of the deceased.

The first day, several national and invited political and religious authorities were the main protagonists of the morning events with gloomy speeches while we waited for the arrival of the deceased. Once this took place, the coffins were lined up around the field. After that was completed, the grief-stricken relatives and friends entered in groups crying, mourning aloud, and sobbing while they slowly moved towards the coffin where their dead relative was. It was a truly emotional time, and it was difficult to stop one’s own tears. It marked the beginning of a long vigil that would continue until the following day.

The second day was another highly moving affair. We were invited to walk past the thirty coffins (already surrounded by relatives and friends) to pay our respect. After this, carrying the coffins, we all walked outside the stadium to the burial site where today a monolith commemorates this tragedy at a place known as “Heroes’ Acre”.

During the course of events, I had a chance to give my condolences to Kalusha who, not surprisingly, looked completely devastated and exhausted as he was there for the whole time of mourning.

Despite the tragedy, a new side was swiftly assembled. Led by Kalusha and with a great attacking playing managed, against all predictions, to reach the 1994 African Cup of Nations final against Nigeria but lost despite having scored first. Despite the setback, the new Zambian team returned home as national heroes.

With the passing of time Kalusha coached the Chipolopolo team in the African Cup of Nations in 2006. He resigned after the elimination of the team early in the tournament. However, he could finally lift the African Cup of Nations in 2012 when he was the President of the Football Association of Zambia, a good ending for Kalusha’s illustrious soccer career.

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