Late in the evening of 27 April 1993, a plane is climbing out of Libreville. On board the Zambian Air Force Buffalo DHC-5D are 18 members of the Zambian national team, four members of the coaching staff, the chairman of the Football Association of Zambia, a public servant, a journalist and five crew members. They are travelling from Lusaka, the Zambian capital, to Dakar, where Zambia will be facing Senegal in a World Cup qualifier.

With the World Cup set to take place in the US the following year, the Chipolopolo are in a fight to reach the tournament for the first time ever. Having just narrowly escaped the first qualification round as winners of Group H after beating Madagascar on goal difference, two other first round group winners, Morocco and Senegal, are next in line.

Exactly what happened as the plane was climbing out of the Gabonese capital remains disputed to this day. A Gabonese report released in 2003, 10 years later, would claim that the left engine caught on fire, and that in his attempt to starve the fire the pilot shut down the wrong engine, a result of a faulty warning light and pilot fatigue. The only sure thing is that the plane plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean just west of the Gabonese capital, killing everybody on board, and breaking Zambian hearts.

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Nineteen years later, after arriving in Gabon for the African Cup of Nations final against the Ivory Coast, the Zambian national team, accompanied by manager Hervé Renard and Kalusha Bwalya, then-president of the Football Association of Zambia, laid down flowers at a beach close to where the plane crashed offshore. Days later they would honour their fallen team-mates in the best way possible when Stoppila Sunzu’s sweetly struck penalty meant that Zambia ran out 8-7 winners in the penalty shootout against the Ivory Coast. Nineteen years after they had stood on the threshold of glory, the circle was complete.

It could have been completed much earlier. Although they came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, there must have been an inevitable feeling of ‘what if’ clouding the hopes of Zambian fans when their team travelled to the 1994 African Cup of Nations. In Tunisia, the newly assembled Zambian team nearly defied all the odds.

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All hope wasn’t lost on the night of the fatal plane crash in 1993. When the 1994 World Cup Qualifying campaign began, Kalusha Bwalya captained Zambia. Born and raised in the Copperbelt town of Mufulira, Bwalya began his career at the local side of the same name before signing for Cercle Brugge. In his first season in Belgium he was the club’s top scorer. He was also twice voted as the Supporters’ Player of the Year.

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ZambiaThe plane crashed wiped out one of Zambia’s greatest sides. Photo: Gideon Mendel

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It was during his time in Bruges that Bwalya began making a name for himself on the international stage. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea, when the Zambian team was known as the KK 11 after President Kenneth Kaunda, he scored one of the most outstanding hat-tricks ever when Zambia thumped Italy 4-0. Bwalya finished the tournament as the joint-second highest goalscorer, equalled by Igor Dobrovolski from the winners of the tournament, the Soviet Union, and only beaten by the great Romário.

In 1989 Bwalya earned himself a move to PSV Eindhoven. In the Netherlands he got to play under the direction of the late Sir Bobby Robson and alongside Romário, and it was there that he would enjoy the two biggest highlights of his career, winning the Eredivisie in 1991 and 1992. Bwalya was one of the few members of the Zambian national team playing his day-to-day football outside of Africa. He had therefore made separate arrangements to travel to Senegal. It would not only save his life, but also land him the biggest challenge he had faced in his career; spearheading a new Zambian national team.

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In the weeks following the crash, the Football Association of Zambia received offers of support from all over the world. Denmark gave them training facilities and the expertise of coach Roald Poulsen. For Poulsen, it was the beginning of a love story with the African continent that would see him manage Zambia twice. It would also see him have a go at South African club football.

Zambia recruited their new players from the local leagues, which was no easy task as the Power Dynamos, the leading Zambian club, lost five players in the plane crash. Besides Kalusha Bwalya, the only Zambian ever to be named African Football of the Year, an honour he received back in 1988, Charles Musonda and Johnson Bwalya were the experienced players expected to show their team-mates a way forward.

Freddie Mwila, who was serving as Botswana national team coach at the time of the fatal plane crash, was also called upon to help put together the new team. He obliged, but only after seeking permission from the Botswana Football Association. However, it was former Chelsea manager Ian Porterfield who would end up taking Zambia to the 1994 African Cup of Nations, having replaced Poulsen just before the tournament was set to begin. He resigned shortly after the tournament, and Poulsen took the reigns yet again.

Having had just five weeks to prepare themselves for the final round of World Cup qualification after the task of assembling a new national team had been completed, Zambia faced Morocco at the Independence Stadium in Lusaka on 4 July. After taking a kick to the face only 90 seconds into the game, defender Linos Makwaza was replaced by Emmanuel Munaile. When Moroccan Rachid Daoudi fired in a left-footed screamer into the top right corner 15 minutes into the game, it seemed like Zambia’s luck wasn’t about to turn any time soon. The Zambian players must have felt hard done by, especially considering they had struck the post just a few minutes before the goal.

An hour into the game, Zambia were awarded a free-kick just outside Morocco’s penalty area. Having piled the pressure on Morocco for most of the game without anything to show for it, Zambia needed something special if they were to break the deadlock. Up stepped Kalusha Bwalya. With his left foot the captain curled the ball over the wall and in off the crossbar, sending the Independence Stadium into raptures and giving approximately 50,000 spectators – one of them President Frederick Chiluba – hope of a glorious comeback.

Ten minutes later, Johnson Bwalya scored the winner for Zambia. His attempted pass was intercepted, but the ball came rolling back to him. Johnson decided to try his luck. His thundering effort flew past Khalid Azmi and into the bottom left corner of the Moroccan goal. Standing on the pitch after game, surrounded by happy fans, Kalusha Bwalya had time to reflect on the tragedy that struck ten weeks earlier. “The Zambian team is gone, but another team is back, so I hope that we can go all the way,” the captain declared. But before they would get the chance to do so, two African Cup of Nations qualifiers awaited.

At the time of the fatal plane crash, Zambia had taken seven points from the first four games in the African Cup of Nations qualification, beating Mauritius twice, South Africa once and drawing at home to Zimbabwe. It left them at the top of Group 5 going into the two final games, one point ahead of their neighbours in the south. Zambia’s 3-0 win over South Africa on 11 July and Zimbabwe’s 2-0 win over Mauritius on the same day meant that everything boiled down to Zambia’s trip to Zimbabwe two weeks later on the 25th.

When the Zambian players walked out at Rufaro Stadium in Harare, they knew that any result bar a loss would see them qualify for the tournament in Tunisia – who replaced the original hosts Zaire – the following year. Unfortunately, like the Morocco game, Zambia fell behind early in the game to a goal from defender Henry McKop. Zambia looked set to fall short at the last hurdle until 10 minutes remained. That’s when Kalusha Bwalya came to the rescue yet again, scoring the goal that meant the Chipolopolo qualified for Tunisia. It was a triumph of huge importance. Zambia had battled diversity at its toughest and won.

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The success was followed by a let down in the autumn of 1993. After their 2-1 win over Morocco, Zambia drew with Senegal in the game that was postponed after the plane crash in late April. When Senegal travelled to Lusaka in the end of September, they ended up on the wrong side of a 4-0 defeat, with Kalusha Bwalya on the scoresheet once again. Before their qualifier away to Morocco on 10 October, Zambia found themselves in a situation identical to the one they had faced a few months earlier. As long as they didn’t lose, Zambia would qualify for the World Cup for the first time ever.

Unfortunately it was the hosts’ tall striker Abdeslam Laghrissi who scored the only goal of the game after an hour. Zambia struck the post twice, but it would not be the only thing they would end up complaining about.

After the plane crash, claims emerged that the plane had been shot down by the Gabonese military, mistaking it for an invasion force. Permanent damage had been done to the diplomatic relations between Zambia and Gabon. In Morocco, it was Gabonese referee Jean-Fidèle Diramba who was in charge of the match. Pain from the tragedy was still lingering among Zambian players, fans and press alike. After the loss in Morocco, the Times of Zambia wrote: “Innuendoes against Gabon will continue to fly for as long as memories of the crash, the frustrated searchers, the almost triumphant grin of a referee named Diramba, linger on in the Zambian mind.”

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Memories of the crash still lingered on in the Zambian mind by the time the Chipolopolo travelled to Tunisia for the 1994 African Cup of Nations, but by then it was time to focus on the challenge ahead. The tournament, featuring the pre-qualified hosts and 11 other teams, would take place in Tunis and in Sousse, an hour-and-a-half drive south-east of the capital. The Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, who finished the 1992 African Cup of Nations in Senegal as champions, runners-up and third respectively, were the favourites to take the title. Zambia would face off against one of them already in the group stage.

With the top two teams advancing from each group, Zambia and the Ivory Coast were expected to advance from Group C, but already from the first game it was clear that it would be a tournament of twists and surprises. Zambia got off to a disappointing start when Sierra Leone held them to a 0-0 draw on 29 March. Two days earlier the Ivory Coast had hit four goals past Sierra Leone, with Joël Tiéhi scoring a hat trick. Anything other than a heavy defeat would therefore send Zambia to the quarter-finals.

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ZambiaThe national restored hope to a beleaguered nation. Photo: Gideon Mendel

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It showed during the game at the Stade Olympique de Sousse. Both sides demonstrated little attacking intent and appeared to be happy to take the draw. Tiéhi almost sent the Ivory Coast in front twice. He had a header that went left of the far post, then he was flagged for offside after he pulled the ball back over a defender and placed it into the goal. Ten minutes before full time, however, substitute Kenneth Malitoli ran onto a wonderful through ball. With his left foot, the 27-year-old fired the ball into the right corner with his first touch of the game, sending the Chipolopolo to the quarter-finals as winners of Group C.

Zambia then came up against Senegal, the side they were travelling to face when 18 members of the squad perished in the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal had come from behind and beaten Guinea 2-1 to advance from Group D in second place behind Ghana. In Sousse, Evans Sakala’s goal seven minutes from half-time was enough to send Zambia through to the semi-finals, where one of the surprises of the tournament, Mali, awaited.

The occasion would prove to big for Mali. At a corner kick only seven minutes into the game, terrible marking left Elijah Litana alone at the far post, where he headed Zambia in front. After half an hour, Zeddy Saileti had an easy task of doubling Zambia’s lead when Mali goalkeeper and captain Ousmane Farota made a mess of his own clearance. Two minutes after half time, Kalusha Bwalya stormed through Mali’s defence and powered home Zambia’s third goal of the day. Mali continued to make mistakes, and Zambia kept punishing them, with Malitoli hammering home the fourth and final goal of the game.

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Although they had been one of the pre-tournament favourites, Nigeria had endured a troublesome way to the final. They had finished second in Group B behind Egypt, who had beaten Gabon by one goal more than Nigeria. Vitória Setúbal striker Rashidi Yekini, the reigning African Footballer of the Year, had been their star man. He followed up his two goals against Gabon with another two goals in the quarter-final against Zaire. He then scored another goal, as well as the decisive penalty, when the Super Eagles beat the Ivory Coast 4-2 in the penalty shootout after a thrilling game had ended 2-2.

Zambia, used to going behind in important games, this time took an early lead. The corner from the left was a good one and when Litana got his head to it and put the ball in the back of the net, the Zambian fans erupted with joy. The joy would not last long. Moments later, still just five minutes into the game, Emmanuel Amuneke equalised when a corner was headed back across the goal. Amuneke, who would go on to be named African Football of the Year that year after a series of fine performances for both country and his two club sides, Zamalek and Sporting Club de Portugal, wasn’t finished. Two minutes after the break he ran onto a cross from the right and buried the ball past goalkeeper James Phiri.

It was the Nigerian players, many of them crying with happiness, who got to go up and collect the African Cup of Nations trophy after the final in Tunis. It was the second time they had won the tournament, but Zambia would get their long sought triumph before the Super Eagles would be able to celebrate being the champions of Africa one more time.

What the Chipolopolo achieved in Tunisia in the spring of 1994 would see them arrive back home in Zambia as heroes, and rightly so. As a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Zambian team had risen to new heights, led by captain Kalusha Bwalya and with the unlikely assistance from two Danish coaches and a Scotsman.

It may have taken them nearly 19 years to fully recover and to reach the heights they had been expected to reach before the fatal plane crash of 1993, but it had taken Zambia less than a year to prove that the spirit of the team of 1993 would live on in the generations to come.

By Aleksander Losnegård. Follow @AleksanderL16