The summer of 2021 has been an important time for Zambian football. The women’s national team have qualified and played in their first ever Olympics. The men’s side have competed in the COSAFA Cup. Star turns Patson Daka and Enoch Mwepu have made the jump to the Premier League. Fashion Sakala is at Steven Gerrard’s Rangers. The profile of the national game is rising and being exposed to the prying eyes of Europe and the world. However, an event 28 years ago makes advances in Zambia all the more poignant.

Air Disaster of 1993

Before looking to the future, the tragic foundations of this story must first be acknowledged. It was the spring of 1993. Zambia were a national team on the rise. There was so much potential. Esteemed ex-pros Alex Chola and Godfrey Chitalu were the coaches. They were legends in Zambia, Chitalu and Chola were first and second respectively in the national team’s scoring charts. Good things seemed destined for this squad. At the Olympics in South Korea five years prior, the Copper Bullets had emphatically demolished Italy 4-0. Yes, the Italy.

The team had their eyes on the 1993 Africa Cup of Nations and a coveted place at their first ever World Cup. The squad was full of talent. Domestic teams like Nkana Red Devils and Kabwe warriors were represented. Yet, Zambia’s talent also extended abroad.

Between the sticks was the experienced Efford Chabala who had achieved a whopping 115 caps and even had a stint with Argentinos Juniors. Striker Timothy Mwitwa was plying his trade with Sparta Prague. Midfielder Derby Makinka was with Lech Poznan before moving to Saudi club El Ettifaq. The jewels in the crown though, were captain Kalusha Bwalya and Charles Musonda. Bwalya was a mainstay in the midfield at PSV Eindhoven and Musonda, a great midfielder in his own right, was with Anderlecht respectively.

On the evening of the 27th of April, the team were set to travel to Dakar. There they would face Senegal in a World Cup Qualifier. In hindsight it seems fortunate that Bwalya had made separate travel arrangements and Musonda was out of squad with injury.

The plane left Lusaka, but sadly never reached Dakar. Engine failure meant the plane didn’t survive the final stint from its refuelling stop in Libreville – going down in the Atlantic, some 500 metres offshore of Gabon’s airport. All 30 passengers and crew, including the 18 players and coaching staff, did not survive the disaster.

Heroes Acre in Zambia, memorial for the lost team.

Aftermath and now

Investigations showed that engine problems were present yet stayed unreported. The country had lost its heroic footballing sons to a needless tragedy. However, it is a credit to the Zambian spirit in how the team rebuilt after its tragic loss. Recovering a line-up out of nothing, the Chipolopolo managed to get to the finals of the Africa Nations Cup two months after the disaster. Agonisingly, they lost to Nigeria. The side also just missed out on a place at World Cup ’94, finishing one point behind Morocco. Regardless, the pride was immense and the team returned to Zambia as national heroes.

So, what about now? The last decade has seen a standout success. Victory in the 2012 AFCON final against Cote D’Ivoire felt like the team had come full circle. It was even immortalised on the silver screen. Eighteam was released in 2015. It took its name from the fact that Zambia’s victory came after a total of 18 penalties and 18 years from the disaster of 1993. The win was in honour of the 18 perished footballers onboard. Notable victories also came in the 2013 and 2019 editions of the COSAFA Cup too.

Zambia has always been able to produce talented players. Now though, a solid core has been finalised in recent years. Players have been established on home soil and in other leagues on the continent – notably in South Africa. Plus, its worth adding the gifted few that break into Europe’s ranks into the equation.

Patson Daka, the poster boy for Zambian football among Fashion Sakala and Enock Mwepu.

Daka, Mwepu and Sakala’s moves signify a huge positive shift for the country that sits 87th in the FIFA ranking charts. Could another AFCON win be on the horizon in the coming years? Will they be able to go one further than their forefathers and reach their first World Cup? Who knows what the future holds, but with these three big moves, for a football country so dishevelled by tragedy all those years ago, greatness slowly beckons.

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