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Zambian national team air crash – a nation mourns

The air crash that killed the entire Zambia national team in April 1993 was a tragedy not only for those involved and their family and friends, but it was a disaster for the whole country ss well, and resulted in a national outpouring of grief.

A golden generation of players were cut down in their prime, just when they had seemed on the verge of achieving something special. In 1988 at the Olympics in Seoul Zambia had thrashed Italy 4 – 0 and they had their sights set on the next African Cup of Nations and also the chance to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in the nation’s history.

In fact, they were on their way to play Senegal in a World Cup qualifier match when the disaster occurred.

It is nearly 4,000 miles from the Luanda, the capital of Zambia to the Senegalese capital Dakar. To make the journey the Zambian air force laid on a plane for them, although safety checks revealed a number of faults with the aircraft before setting out.

Nevertheless, it was allowed to depart with members of the team board plus coaching and support staff. Missing was the Zambian captain Kalusha Bwalya, who was back playing for his club side PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and who had arranged to make his own way to Senegal. And midfielder Charly Musonda missed the trip altogether because of injury.

The plane was due to make three refuelling stops – in Brazzaville, the Congo, in Libreville, Gabon, and finally In Abidjan, the Ivory Coast. During the first stop in Brazzaville, some engine problems were detected. But the flight crew decided to continue the flight and they landed in Libreville.

However, a few minutes after taking off from there again, the left engine caught fire. The pilot, perhaps because of a faulty warning light, or fatigue, then made what proved to be a fatal mistake, and shut down the right engine.

The plane instantly lost power and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.  All aboard died instantly.

When news of the tragedy was relayed back to Zambia, the whole country went into national mourning. The bodies of the team were recovered and flown back to Zambia where they were buried just inside the Independence Stadium in Luanda in a plot of ground that became known as “Heroes Acre”.

A new team was swiftly constituted around Bwalya, tasked with resurrecting their World Cup campaign, but also to take part in the 1994 African Cup of Nations which was held in Tunisia.

Against all odds, Zambia got to the finals that year against Nigeria, and even took the lead, before eventually losing 2 -1 . Nevertheless. They were given a heroes’ reception on their return home.

In 2012 Zambia did win the African Cup of Nations for the first time ever, beating the Ivory Coast in a penalty shootout.

Fittingly perhaps, that match took place in Gabon, just a few miles from where the 1993 team had met their untimely end.

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