Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene was just nine years old when news reached Lusaka that the ‘pride of the nation’ had perished off the west coast of Africa.
An air force plane carrying the national squad to Senegal in April 1993 for a World Cup qualifier crashed soon after take-off following a refuelling stop in Gabon capital Libreville and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
Only former African Footballer of the Year Kalusha Bwalya avoided one of the great African football tragedies because he was based in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven and travelled directly to Dakar from Europe.
Many Zambian football followers consider the team of 1993 the greatest to represent the mineral-rich southern Africa country and those who died are buried outside the national stadium in Lusaka.
Zambia built a new Bwalya-inspired team overnight who came agonisingly close to glory — missing out on a 1994 World Cup place by one point and finishing runners-up to Nigeria in the Africa Cup of the Nations the same year.
Mweene plays for South African Premiership outfit Free State Stars and said he spoke for the 2012 Cup of Nations squad when telling AFP they are going to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to “put the souls of our fallen heroes to rest.
“Most of us were in primary school when the crash happened, but Kalusha remembers it vividly and has encouraged us to keep those who perished in our minds whenever we fight for our country.”
It is a theme taken up by another South Africa-based squad member, midfielder Isaac Chansa from famous Soweto club Orlando Pirates, and France-born national coach Herve Renard.
“The best way to honour the Zambian stars who died off the coast of Gabon is by doing well at this Cup of Nations,” stressed the midfielder who packs an explosive shooting punch.
Renard has set the bar high for his team: “It is my dream to win the Cup of Nations in Libreveille because a great part of Zambian football history was written there.
“Imagine if we could lift the trophy — it would be a fantastic way to honour the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the land they loved.
“I am going to central Africa with footballers who are committed to fighting for their country and not just themselves. We will be proud ambassadors of Zambia. We will respect all our opponents, but we will fear none of them.”
The Copper Bullets are in Bata-based Group A with Senegal, a country they have beaten twice and lost to once in five previous Cup of Nations clashes, Libya and Equatorial Guinea and the top two advance to the knockout phase.
Renard quit Zambia having taken them to the quarter-finals of the last African tournament and returned when football association president Bwalya dumped Italian Dario Bonetti two days after 2012 qualification was secured.
Getting past Senegal and Libya, who beat and held Zambia in the qualifying competition, will not be easy, never mind a potential last-eight match-up with title co-favourites Ivory Coast.
But Renard insists nothing is impossible, not even trampling on the Didier Drogba-captained Ivorian Elephants: “We are not among the favourites, but my team can win this Cup. All we need is hard work and commitment.”