This entry is actually about two teams. They both represented the same country. Both attempted to qualify for the same World Cup. Both teams even shared some of the same players. But they are unequivocally different, separate teams. What separates them is tragedy.
On 27th April 1993, a bright yellow De Havilland Buffalo crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Libreville, Gabon. Aboard were 30 people, the majority of whom were an integral part of Zambian football: the chairman of the Football Association of Zambia, journalists, coaching staff, and 18 members of the national team squad. Their destination had been Dakar, Senegal, for a World Cup qualifier. None of them would live to know if their country would ever reach the finals.
The shockwaves from the disaster would reverberate around the world, but were mostly felt throughout the Zambian nation. For the Zambian people, football was an escape from the ills of living in one of the world’s poorest countries. The national football team had become a beacon of hope. The world stage beckoned. The crash wasn’t just a sporting tragedy – it was a national catastrophe.
But in the aftermath, a remarkable turn of events: the new Zambia team, reborn with fresh faces, emerged in the weeks and months after the crash as a unit that was every bit as tough and tenacious as the team the nation had lost. For a while, it looked as if fate was on their side. On 10th October, as they headed into their final qualifying match, they stood on the brink of an extraordinary, unparalleled feat. That they ultimately did not make it to the USA is irrelevant – the fact that the Zambian team came back at all from the devastation of April 1993, and proved they were worthy of competing against the best, was worthy enough of any honour you can win in the sport.
The first team: the KK XI
The story of the two teams is often said to start in 1988, at the Olympic Games in Seoul. There, in one of the most remarkable results in the history of football at the Olympics, a youthful Zambia side crushed an Italy team featuring Serie A stars like Ciro Ferrara, Mauro Tassotti and Andrea Carnevale.
Star of the show was 24-year-old striker Kalusha Bwalya of Cercle Brugge, who scored three of Zambia’s four goals. The other came from namesake Johnson Bwalya of FC Fribourg in Switzerland. Kalusha and Johnson – the first names were all that was necessary – were supported by a talented group of young players, including midfielder Charly Musonda of Anderlecht, and domestic stars David “Efford” Chabala, Derby Makinka, Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Ashious Melu, Webster Chikabala, and opening ceremony flagbearer Samuel Chomba.
In topping their group with five points out of six, they progressed to a second round tie with a West Germany team featuring Jurgen Klinsmann, Thomas Hassler and Karlheinz Riedle. This proved a step too far, with Klinsmann scoring a hat trick in a 4-0 win, but they had made their mark in a competitive Olympic football competition packed full of future world stars.
The nation looked forward to seeing the development of this young team, as they looked to replicate or surpass the feats of the Zambia teams of the 1974 and 1982 African Cup of Nations, where they reached the final and semi-finals respectively. Though long one of the more competitive African teams, the KK XI – a nickname coined by legendary commentator Dennis Liwewe and named after president Dr Kenneth Kaunda, a keen supporter of the national game as a unifying force – had failed to win the Cup of Nations or qualify for the World Cup, having narrowly missed out to Zaire in qualification for the 1974 finals. As the team grew, so did the hopes that this group of players might be the ones to change that.
In 1990, Zambia headed to Algeria for the African Cup of Nations. They had been knocked out of World Cup qualification by Tunisia, who edged past them with a 1-0 win in the last match of a competitive second round group, but the Cup of Nations allowed them the chance to pit themselves against more of the continent’s best teams. In their opening game, a goal from Chikabala sunk Cameroon, just months away from becoming the sensations of the World Cup. They followed it with a win over Kenya and a draw with Senegal to top the group and progress to the semi-finals. There they fell short, beaten 2-0 by Nigeria, but they had again demonstrated that they were a coming team – third place, sealed with a win in the play-off against Senegal, was a promising result in an increasingly competitive competition.
The next target was the 1992 Cup of Nations, this time in Senegal. Between the two tournaments, changes were afoot back home: Kaunda’s 37-year rule came to an end in 1991 with the country’s first free elections leading to a new democratic regime. But if the country was changing, the national team provided stability and something for everyone to unite around, in hope of success at last.
In Senegal, they were drawn in a tough group, alongside the 1990 World Cup stars of Egypt and a Ghana side led by the formidable Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah. In their opening game, Kalusha once again came to the fore, sinking the Egyptians with the only goal of the game after an hour. A defeat to Ghana courtesy of a brilliant strike from Abedi Pele proved to be an irrelevance, as the Black Stars beat Egypt with a late Yeboah goal to eliminate them. Zambia were through again.
Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, it was in the quarter-finals that they came up against the resilient Ivory Coast, who nabbed a 1-0 win in extra time en route to winning the tournament. As in 1990, Zambia had come up just short in the knockout rounds, but they headed into the first round of 1994 World Cup qualifiers again optimistic that this group of players was destined to become their nation’s greatest team.
They were drawn against Tanzania, Madagascar and Namibia (who replaced Burkina Faso after they withdrew). One team would progress to the final round. But while no group in Africa is ever straight-forward, the other groups demonstrated it could have been a lot tougher: Morocco were drawn against Tunisia, Nigeria against reinstated South Africa, and Algeria against Ghana.
After opening wins against Tanzania and Namibia, they slipped up – a shock 2-0 defeat in Antannarivo, after disrupted preparations, suddenly left them vulnerable. It was time for a change of tack. Out went their coach of five years, Samuel Ndhlovu. His replacement was Moses Simwala, a midfielder for the national team throughout the 1970s. However, Simwala fell ill shortly before the team’s next game against Tanzania, and he would never fully recover, tragically dying in September 1993 at the age of 44. The responsibility of managing the team fell to one of his former team mates, the legendary national figure Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu.
Chitalu was, at the time, Zambia’s greatest ever player. A fixture in the national side between 1968 and 1980, he remains the team’s highest goalscorer, with a sensational 79 goals in 108 internationals. But his form wasn’t just confined to internationals – in 1972, while playing for Kabwe Warriors, it is claimed he racked up an astronomical 117 goals, of which 107 came during the regular season. When Lionel Messi scored his 86th goal of 2012, believed to be a calendar-year world record, the FAZ disputed it, presenting evidence of Chitalu’s feats 40 years before. FIFA declined to choose between the two men’s tallies, so it remains an unofficial world record.
Under Chitalu’s guidance, a 3-1 win over Tanzania on 16th January 1993 put Zambia back on track, and they followed it up with a 4-0 win over Namibia. Tanzania’s withdrawal from qualification meant their results were annulled, which left it down to the final game against Madagascar in Lusaka. Goals from Kelvin Mutale, Kalusha, and Timothy Mwitwa sent the Zambians through with a 3-1 win. Crisis averted.
The final part of World Cup qualification was a three-way winner-take-all group, beginning in April 1994. Zambia were drawn against Morocco, eliminated at the group stage in the 1992 Cup of Nations but one of the more naturally gifted African teams, and Claude Le Roy’s Senegal. The opening game saw Morocco steal a late win in Casablanca over the Senegalese, the only goal coming from Mohammed Chaouch. The next match two weeks later was therefore crucial for both Senegal and visitors Zambia. Tragically, the great encounter it promised to be never happened.
The crash is believed to have been caused by engine failure shortly after the second of three refuelling stops in Libreville, after which the pilot switched off the plane’s remaining functioning engine. The FAZ had turned to the military to provide travel for the team as they couldn’t afford to send them on a commercial or charter flight, but the plane, which was well-known to the team, had a notorious history of problems.
It cost the lives of the 30 people onboard, including the chairman of the FAZ, the national team’s iconic figurehead Chitalu, and 18 players. 11 of them had been members of the 1992 African Cup of Nations squad, including Efford Chabala, Zambia’s most-capped player with 115 appearances in goal. Also lost were Makinka, Chansa and Chomba, amongst the heroes of 1988, and Mutale and Mwitwa, who had scored the crucial goals against Madagascar.
Not on the plane was Kalusha Bwalya, still back in the Netherlands with club side PSV Eindhoven. He, Johnson Bwalya and Charly Musonda, the European-based players, had survived the tragedy by a quirk of fate. Their worlds turned upside down, as their country wept for its fallen heroes.
The second team: Chipolopolo
“The Zambian team is gone but you know, another team is back, so I hope that we can go all the way” – Kalusha Bwalya, 1993
But soon they were thrust back into the limelight. While the game against Senegal was postponed until August, the qualification campaigns for the World Cup and Cup of Nations had to continue, and a new team had to be quickly built around the Bwalyas, along with Kalusha’s brother Joel. It was a particularly difficult task, as the crash had not only gutted the national team but also robbed the Zambian national league of its finest players.
A team of multi-national coaches around Zambian Fred Mwila assembled a team for the visit of Morocco in July. While the Danish FA provided two coaches and facilities through selfless support, the man who would assume the mantle of head coach was a well-known figure of British football, who knew what it was like to win against the odds.
In 1973, Ian Porterfield had scored the winning goal for Second Division club Sunderland in the FA Cup Final against dominant Leeds United. However, the Scot had recently been sacked by Chelsea, becoming the first managerial casualty of the Premiership era. His interest in the Zambia team came when Wimbledon and England striker John Fashanu returned from the emotionally-charged mass funeral of the players killed in the plane crash. He made himself available, marking what would be the start of a globetrotting adventure; when he assumed the head coach role from Mwila, it was the first of seven appointments around the world for Porterfield, including five as a national team manager, before his untimely death from cancer in 2007 at the age of 61.
You could have been forgiven that the Zambia team which had been torn apart just two months before would now crumble in the face of the talented Atlas Lions. You could have forgiven the team for doing just that – mental wounds were still fresh; people were still angry, including some of the players. But there was also signs of rebirth and healing. In a friendly against Malawi just before the qualifier, the crowd started chanting “Chipolopolo” – Copper Bullets. From now on, the KK XI label was consigned to the past, laid to rest with the old team. A new identity was being formed.
What happened next was extraordinary. Despite going a goal down in the first minute, courtesy of Rachid Daoudi, the new team fought their way back into the game. An hour in, they won a free kick on the edge of the box. Kalusha blasted it into the top corner. With Morocco rocking, Chipolopolo kept the pressure on, and just seven minutes later, Johnson fired home a long-range winner. Amidst an outpouring of emotion, the new team had won its first game.
A week later, they followed it with a thumping 3-0 win against South Africa in a Cup of Nations qualifier. A draw against Zimbabwe two weeks on, sealed by a late Kalusha equaliser, guaranteed their place in the finals in Tunisia. With that sealed, they could now focus on the World Cup. The next qualifier was to be an emotional one – away to Senegal, but this time on neutral territory in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A 0-0 kept them well in touch with Morocco, who had beaten Senegal 3-1 in July. Little did they know that what seemed a good result was eventually their undoing.
The return leg took place on 26th September. In a crushing display of dominance, Chipolopolo won 4-0. They were now a point ahead of Morocco with one game to play. A draw in Casablanca would give them a place at the World Cup finals in the USA – this makeshift team was on the cusp of the greatest achievement in the history of Zambian football. They prepared for the big game in the Netherlands, thanks to the generosity of the Dutch FA. In a boost for the squad, Charly Musonda, who had declared himself unavailable for selection after the plane crash in protest at the FAZ, reversed his decision and returned to the team. But tensions were heightened by CAF choosing a Gabonese referee for the game; relations between Zambia and Gabon had been poor over the handling of the disaster. The world’s press had also turned up, keen to report on the miracle they expected to happened.
Alas, sometimes the weight of the narrative isn’t enough – the miracle didn’t happen. With the media focusing on Zambia, Morocco just got on with the job of breaking hearts: Abdeslam Laghrissi scored the game’s only goal as they exacted revenge for the defeat in Lusaka. Ultimately, the difference between the teams had been their results away to Senegal, with Morocco’s 3-1 win giving them an extra point to Zambia’s 0-0 draw. Just one goal either in Abidjan or Casablanca would have seen Chipolopolo complete their romantic story, but it was not to be.
Regardless of where the extra goal should have come, it was an extremely tough result for Zambia to take, but they carried it with great dignity and could be rightly proud of their efforts. It remains the closest Chipolopolo have come to qualifying for the World Cup.
Seven months on, they returned to action at the Cup of Nations. After progressing from the first round as group winners ahead of Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, they beat Senegal and Mali to book their place in the final. They again found themselves at the centre of the footballing world’s attention, less than a year after the tragedy in Libreville. Again, it was the inspirational Kalusha Bwalya leading the team onwards, his status unchallenged as the figurehead of Zambian football.
The final was against highly-rated Nigeria, leaving Chipolopolo as underdogs once again. Even so, they took a very early lead in the third minute, with big defender Elijah Litana heading in a corner. The Super Eagles immediately responded with a goal from another corner from Emmanuel Amunike, and the winger added a second just after half time. From there, it was agonising. Kalusha hit a post, and two further Zambian attempts on goal were scrambled off the line. But fate was again not with them. History records that they were edged out by a more talented team, but that tells you only part of the story.
Porterfield left to travel the world, but Zambia with Kalusha remained a threat in the Cup of Nations. They made the semi-finals again in 1996, losing 4-2 to Tunisia, but then went on a barren run: the next six tournaments saw them either fail to get out of the group or, in 2004, fail to qualify altogether.
Kalusha, who for a time was player-coach, retired in 2004 at the age of 41. After quitting as head coach in 2006, he became president of the FAZ in 2008, such is the esteem he is held in. That year, he oversaw the arrival of the charismatic Frenchman Hervé Renard as head coach. A former understudy of Claude Le Roy, Renard brought new belief and organisation to the team. In the 2010 Cup of Nations, Zambia finally progressed to the knockout stages, before losing on penalties to Nigeria in the quarter-finals. Though Renard left after the tournament, he returned in 2011 in time to lead them to the 2012 Cup of Nations.
There was almost an air of inevitability about it all – the 2012 finals were held in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, with the final to be held in the new Stade de l’Amitié in Libreville, a short distance away from the scene of the disaster just under 19 years before. Zambia were drawn to play their matches in Equatorial Guinea, but it was as if fate was guiding them to the final. After progressing from their group, they beat Sudan in the quarter-finals, and then stunned Ghana in the semi-finals with a late goal from Renard’s favourite striker, Emmanuel Mayuka. They would now have to face the tragedy once again.
Before the final, Kalusha and Renard took their players to the coastline closest to the scene of the crash. Perhaps there was something spiritual that had galvanised them and was helping them on. In the final, they played out of their skins to hold Ivory Coast, arguably the most complete African team ever, although they also needed good fortune – Didier Drogba, the greatest player in Africa, blazed a penalty over the bar with just 20 minutes remaining.
Instead, more penalties were needed to separate the teams after 120 minutes of football. After 14 successful spot kicks, Kolo Touré’s attempt was saved by the flamboyant Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene. Rainford Kalaba, with the chance to seal the title, fired over. Suddenly, flashbacks to the near-misses – to 1992 and the extra time defeat to Ivory Coast; to 1993 the game against Morocco; to 1990 and 1994, the two losses to Nigeria; to the crash, just a few miles away. Not again.
This time, fate was with them. Gervinho, who had refused to take the previous penalty, stepped up and also blasted over. It was left to centre-back Stoppila Sunzu to deliver the big moment. When he found the corner of the net, the emotions poured out.
But for all the glory of the 2012 squad, who will rightly be remembered as one of the great Cup of Nations teams, any Zambian team that takes to the field will always do so in the shadow of the 18 players and five coaches who lost their lives in the crash. Beyond the spiritual, it’s even confirmed in bricks and mortar; the new national stadium in Lusaka, which opened in 2014, is named the National Heroes Stadium. A short distance away is Heroes’ Acre, the final resting place of the 1993 team. While they never won the Cup of Nations or qualified for the World Cup, they will forever be remembered as Zambia’s greatest team.
Wisdom Mumba Chansa
Joseph Bwalya Salim – journalist
Michael Mwape – FAZ Chairman
Nelson Zimba – public servant
The flight crew
Colonel Fenton Mhone
Lt Colonel Victor Mubanga
Lt Colonel James Sachika
Warrant Officer Edward Nambote
Corporal Tomson Sakala