x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Forever in the memory of Zambia's departed footballers

Jonathan Wilson recalls how Zambia emerged champions last year as a perfect tribute to the 1993 tragedy victims.

Zambia players erupted in a myraid of emotions after they managed to shock Ivory Coast in penalties last year.
Zambia players erupted in a myraid of emotions after they managed to shock Ivory Coast in penalties last year.

Stoppila Sunzu walks from the centre-circle where his teammates are huddled.

They are singing and, as he pauses at the end of his run-up, it becomes apparent that he is as well. It is the 18th penalty of the shoot-out. If he scores, Zambia will win the African Cup of Nations for the first time in their history.

But it is about more than that. A lot more.

It is about death and glory and honouring fallen heroes and finding meaning in tragedy. It is about something profoundly human, the sort of sentimental narrative of redemption that would be saccharine in a film but that sport does so well because sport is real.

The next Cup of Nations starts in South Africa in less than two weeks. Already the sub-plots are gathering to form the narrative but it is hard to imagine how it could possibly match what happened in Libreville in February.

The story began in 1993 when a military plane carrying the Zambia team to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal crashed off the Gabonese coast shortly after refuelling in Libreville.

All 25 passengers and five crew were killed. Kalusha Bwalya, the star of the team, was not on the plane; he played for PSV Eindhoven in Holland and so was making his own way to Dakar.

Somehow, he found the strength to put together a new team. They narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification and reached the final of the Cup of Nations in 1994, where they were beaten by Nigeria. That felt like the end.

But when the Cup of Nations came to Gabon, Zambia found a new momentum. They were drawn in the group based in Bata in Equatorial Guinea, which co-hosted the tournament.

By topping their group, they ensured that they could not play in Gabon until the final - if they got there. It felt appropriate and, as Herve Renard, their French coach, noted, that added to the sense that winning was their destiny.

Zambia had played well in Angola in 2010, a little unfortunate to go out on penalties to Nigeria in the quarter-final, but they had only one player who played in a top-flight league in Europe. Theirs was a squad put together from players based mainly at home, or in South Africa or DR Congo.

Few gave them a chance, and yet the lack of glamour became an advantage. This was very much a team and the fact there were no European clubs flexing their muscles meant the squad was able to gather to prepare fully three weeks before the tournament began.

After Zambia had beaten Ghana 1-0 in the semi-final, Bwalya, now the president of the Zambian football federation, gave an extraordinary interview. His voice cracking, he spoke of his pride in the team and insisted they could not lose in the final.

"It won't be eleven against eleven out there," he said. "We'll have eleven ghosts on our side as well."

Two days before the final, the Zambia team visited the beach that was the last land the fateful plane crossed in 1993. The sand was scruffy and strewn with litter and, with a number of journalists and photographers hanging around, it felt at first that the spectacle could be tawdry.

But then the Zambian players, each carrying a bouquet, began to sing a gentle, mournful song. Slowly, they walked out into the sea. Silence fell over the beach so the only sound was their song and the whisper of the surf. They lay the bouquets in the waves; soon the flowers were scattered, a red, green and orange band stretching out into the Atlantic.

A little over two days later, it was that same song that Sunzu and his teammates were singing.

Destiny? Perhaps not, but Zambia had played with ferocious self-belief. Ivory Coast were the better side, packed with players from Europe's top leagues, but they had not managed to break Zambia down.

When they were awarded a penalty with 20 minutes remaining, Didier Drogba blasted over. And so, goalless, the match went to penalties.

The first seven taken by each side were scored. Gervinho was asked to take Ivory Coast's eighth. He refused. Kolo Toure went forward but his effort was saved.

Rainford Kalaba had the chance to win but failed. Gervinho at last went forward and, with a sense of implacable inevitability, missed. And so Zambia had another chance. Sunzu, calmed by song, did not waste the second opportunity, thumping in perhaps the most emotional penalty ever seen.

Renard carried Joseph Musonda, his injured left-back, onto the pitch to join the celebrations. As he crossed the running track, he passed Bwalya, standing silently, head bowed.

Nineteen years on, Zambia had erected the best possible memorial in Libreville.

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