Zambia hopes to honour 1993 team killed in crash

AP, Saturday 21 Jan 2012

Zambian football has only horrific memories of Libreville, the city where it lost a generation of players when their plane plunged into the ocean, killing everyone on board

Chris Katongo
Zambia captain Chris Katongo

In that 1993 crash, Zambia lost probably its best-ever team in its worst sporting disaster, as 18 players and seven officials died when their military aircraft went down soon after taking off from Libreville.

Nearly 20 years later, the country’s 2012 squad is hoping to honour the memory of that team by returning to Libreville on 12 February to play in the African Cup of Nations final, and turn the city into a place of joy.

Zambia is based in neighbouring Equatorial Guinea, Gabon’s co-host, for the first part of the African championship and will only reach Libreville at the semifinal stage at the earliest. It’s an inspiring target for the current players.

“Gabon is where our national team perished in 1993,” Zambia captain Chris Katongo said. “If we can do that [reach the end of the tournament] and play the final in Gabon it would be fantastic. The most important thing is to work hard.

“It [the memory of 1993] touches our hearts, but we have to work. This is the African Cup.”

In 1993, Zambia’s team was heading to Senegal for a World Cup qualifier when the accident happened. It took away an entire national team, save for one player.

Only Kalusha Bwalya, the country’s biggest star, was spared as he was due to meet up with the rest of the squad in West Africa after traveling separately from his club side in Europe. His teammates never arrived.

With Bwalya at the heart, Zambia quickly rebuilt and reached the final of the African Cup a year later on a wave of emotion. But it lost to Nigeria and has never been to a title game at the continental championship since.

“It is my dream to win the Cup of Nations in Libreville because a great part of Zambian football history was written there,” midfielder Isaac Chansa told the African football confederation website. “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.”

Goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, a schoolboy two decades ago when news filtered through in Zambia of the plane crash, has only vague memories of the tragedy that left an entire country in mourning. But Bwalya, the country’s greatest player and now its football federation president, provides a living reminder of that lost team for the players of today.

“Most of us were in primary school when the crash happened,” Mweene said, “but Kalusha remembers it vividly and has encouraged us to keep those who perished in our minds whenever we fight for our country.”

Before Zambia travelled to its base in Bata in Equatorial Guinea, they were sent a message by the country’s president, Michael Sata.

The president wished his team luck and said the memories from the 1993 crash made this tournament a very emotional one.

“That, however, should not put you under any pressure. It should inspire you to conquer,” Sata said.

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