GABON DISASTER VICTIMS REMEMBERED

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DANIEL KAOMA writes

THE team that perished in the Gabon plane crash of April 28, 1993 off the shores of the Gabonese capital of Libreville, according to popular belief by the ordinary fans, book-makers and neutral observers alike, was on the cusp of conquering the continent if their lives were not cruelly and horrifically curtailed in the way they were.

The Godfrey Chitalu-Alex Chola tutored team had played 16 matches in all competitions and only lost once – an excellent record by any standards.

The last match played by the crème de la crème was the 1994 USA World Cup qualifier against Islanders Mauritius in an away fixture in Curepipe on April 25, 1993.

Kelvin Mutale, the hottest striker in Zambian football, be it as it may that he was plying his trade in Saudi Arabia with that country’s top side El-Ettifaq, scored all the three goals in a 3-0 thrashing of the Islanders.

But as fate would have it, the team, on its way to Senegal to fulfil a 1994 USA World Cup fixture with the so-called Teranga Lions, were collectively decimated in a plane crash in what has come to be referred to as the Gabon Air Disaster, the world over.

Belief abounded that Zambia, for the first time in her history, were to qualify for both the 1994 African Cup of Nations, scheduled for Tunisia, as well as the USA World Cup finals. Both possibilities, as is well known, were cut short owing to the plane crash that killed 18 loftily-talented footballers, two coaches (both equally-gifted players in their heydays) and 10 other passengers aboard the buffalo military plane.

Almost 19 years after the Gabon Air Disaster, the Herve Renard-coached and Christopher Katongo captained side would conquer Africa in Libreville, the place where the 1993 squad lost its 18 players.

After the 1993 plane crash, the team was re-constituted within several months and very few people gave the new team any ghost of a chance to qualify, later on, if qualification sufficed, to go so far at the Tunisia-held tournament.

Lo and behold, Zambia’s seemingly far-fetched qualification to the Tunisia jamboree became a reality when the then Kalusha Bwalya skippered side, needing just a single point against Zimbabwe in an away encounter in Harare, drew 1-1 through a late Kalusha equalizer to send his team victorious to the Tunisia championship.

As is well documented, Zambia reached the championship match and lost 2-1 to eventual winners Nigeria, having earlier taken an Elijah Litana headed lead.

In the 1996 AFCON tournament staged in South Africa, Zambia fought tooth and nail and posted some impressive results but would only reap bronze after beating Ghana 1-0 in the third play-off with a Joel Bwalya stunner from some 30 metres away.

And then followed the worst record in AfCON history of a going out in the first round for ten consecutive years when Zambia, between 1998 and 2008, a period of 10 years at a stretch needless to say, she went out in the first round at every turn – from Burkina Faso to Ghana and in between, failed to qualify for the Tunisia 2004 championship.

And having only improved a bit up the ladder on her CV by going out in the quarter-finals during the 2010 Angola AfCON-staged tournament, Zambia, like in a dream, virtually written off as complete under-dogs, A1 outsiders to win the 2012 Equatorial Guinea/Gabon co-hosted African Cup of Nations tournament, not only topped her group and went all the way to ultimately win the trophy against one of the tournament’s favourites Ivory Coast 8-7 after regulation time had manufactured a barren stalemate.

In the group stage, Zambia beat the much-fancied Senegal 2-1, drew Libya 2-2 by coming from behind on two occasions on a water-logged pitch.

And in the third and concluding match of the first round, Zambia beat hosts Equatorial Guinea by a lone Christopher Katongo goal to progress to the quarter-finals where she thrashed Sudan 3-0 through a Stophilla Sunzu’s bullet-header, a James Chamanga curler and a captain Katongo penalty.

Zambia were in the semi-final, rubbishing all manner of predictions against her.

In the last four, with book-makers still believing the Chipolopolo would be knocked out this time around by the Black Stars, they were again proven wrong lock, stock and barrel.

It took second half introduction Emmanuel Mayuka’s 78th minute goal to silence the soothsayers and doubting-Thomases and jaundiced press. They were forced to eat their own warped words in the end. Despite this larger-than-life achievement, sceptics were not unrelenting in their belief that Zambia would finally fall at the hands of Ivory Coast in the championship match on February 12, 2012.

Fielding the likes of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers of Manchester City’s Yaya Toure and Arsenal’s Kolo and another Highbury (The Emirates) player in Gervihno, among their star players, Zambia held her own by battling to a goal-less draw.

In the shoot-out that ensued, Zambia had the last and loudest laugh when she out-shoot the so-called Elephants 8-7 with defender Sunzu of the shirt No.13 slotting in the crucial shot that sent the Ivorian goalkeeper the wrong way to spark spontaneous country celebrations.

Zambia had conquered the continent after a long wait of 38 years on the bounce.

The win, was dedicated to the fallen heroes of the April 28, 1993 Gabon Air Disaster that included 18 players, two coaches, a five man Zambia Air Force crew and a four-man Football Association of Zambia (FAZ)personnel that included the then president Michael Mwape. Joseph Bwalya Salim from the Zambia National Information Service (ZANIS) was the only member of the press on board.

What the Gabon Air Disaster players set out to do and very much were prepared tooth and nail to accomplish, would be accomplished almost 19 years later.

The 2012 AfCON victory by the (Chris) Katongo-shepherded side, in a word, was a perfect dedication to the fallen heroes of April 1993 whose band leader was the one and only Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu of the world record 107 goals in a single season.

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