By John Duerden
Zambia’s African Cup of Nations adventure was revitalized against Gabon on Thursday to put a big, if perhaps slightly surprised, smile on the faces of 12 million people in this southern African nation
The Chipolopolo, or the Copper Bullets in English (a reference to Zambia’s main industry -copper, not bullets- and the fact that many of the nation’s best players hail from the mining regions of the country) are revered in this landlocked nation.
The 2-1 win against Alain Giresse’s men which booked the bullets a quarter-final tie with Nigeria on Monday, is a great start to the new year after the disappointment of 2009 and the failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. That third place finish, well-behind Egypt and eventual Group C qualifiers Algeria, was painful for those in the former British colony.
But more than fans in many countries, supporters in Zambia are able to keep some sense of perspective about the results. Even if the team had lost to Gabon, there would have been no headlines lamenting the ‘Gabon Disaster’ or “Gabon Nightmare’. The reason is simple. Zambian football experienced a real Gabon tragedy in 1993, one that still casts a huge shadow over the beautiful game.
Gabon was the place where a plane carrying the Zambian national team crashed in April 1993 as the team headed to Senegal for a 1994 World Cup qualifier. All 30 passengers, 18 of whom were players, died in the tragedy, adding to the list of aviation disasters in football which contains Manchester United’s crash in Munich in 1958, the Superga disaster in 1949 which killed 18 Torino players and the 1979 Dniprodzerzhynsk mid-air collision which killed 17 members of Uzbekistan (then part of the Soviet Union)club Pahktakor.
It was only in 2003 that an official enquiry reported as to the causes of the crash. The blame was placed on a mechanical fault in the left engine of the Zambian Air Force plane. The pilot, perhaps due to tiredness as he had returned from Mauritius the day before, mistakenly turned off the right, correctly functioning, engine and the plane proceeded to lose power not far out of Libreville and drop out of the sky.
“I remember that fateful April 28 when I was still in school. It was a dark day that shocked the entire nation,” Zambian Economist journalist, Chongo Kabange tells Goal.com. “I remember seeing pictures of the remains of the crash victims in newspapers. It was a sad event that brought Zambians of different persuasions and ambitions together. Children, women, men, the young and the elderly were united in grief.”
The mourning lasted long and the effects of the disaster are still being felt on the football field. That Zambian team was talented and popular. The players are buried near at “Heroes’ Acre”, a special monument next to Lusaka’s Independence Stadium. The players that came immediately into the line-up may not have been heroes but they almost pulled off the impossible just a few months later.
Zambia’s makeshift team, led by legendary striker Kalusha Bwalya who wasn’t on the plane in 1993 due to club commitments with PSV Eindhoven, defied expectations at the 1994 African Nations Cup. Back then, the continental competition was not the major football event it is now but neutrals all over Africa and beyond willed on the Chipolopolo.
Zambia finished top of their group above Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone despite just scoring once in the two games. Then came a tight 1-0 win over Senegal in quarter-finals that had the fans at home daring to dream. A 4-0 thrashing of Mali in the semi-final had the nation holding its breath and looking forward to a final with Nigeria.
Zambia, supported by the world, had a dream start as Elijah Litana scored after just three minutes. But this was a talented Nigerian team that would impress at the World Cup just two months later, topping their group before narrowly losing to eventual runners-up Italy.
Emmanuel Amuneke soon equalized and when he scored again at the start of the second half, Zambia just couldn’t get back into the game. The defeated finalists returned home to a heroes’ welcome from a proud nation. The heady events of that spring hasn’t stopped fans and journalists wondering just what might have been.
At the time of the disaster Zambia were one of the best teams in Africa as Kabange recalls. “Without the crash, Zambian football would be at a whole different level today. I guess with the enthusiasm and appetite that those players had, Zambia would have at least won one or two African Cup tournaments and participated in the World Cup at least once.
“It was a very dedicated team that would have shared its experience to the newer generation of players currently representing Zambia in major international tournaments.”
The latest tournament started slowly but could end in fine fashion much to the delight of fans who love the national team and the beautiful game. Unfortunately, local supporters won’t be turning up in great numbers to the local game to get their football fixes, fans tend to look for the results of overseas clubs before their own.
“Zambians are very passionate about the national team and they would love it participate in major events such as AFCON or World Cup,” says Kabange. “Many Zambians support the national team at international level but when it comes to clubs tend to follow European teams such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Arsenal or Liverpool.”
Sanday attributes the decline of the local scene to the privatization of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) which had supported the local game financially. “Attendances have drastically dropped since the days when Zambia’s Independence Stadium would be full to capacity just to watch two local clubs battle it out for a championship.As well as a lack of sponsorship, poor infrastructure turns off supporters.
” Zambia lacks modern sports facilities and this somehow demoralises the fans. There needs to be investment in grassroots football. Then we get a leverage of what our investments are worth with 15 years. There is no need to rush for quick results within the shortest possible time.”
After the nation’s recent football history, Zambian fans have more patience than most but even so, the bars of Lusaka will be packed on Monday to see if the Copper Bullets can shoot themselves into African football history. Few will begrudge them if they do.