20 Years since the Gabon Tragedy

Gabon Tragedy

Zambian football was omitting an indescribable buzz in April 1993. It was the circumstance of a half-decade in which the Zambian game had shed its cape of anonymity and risen to prominence.

At the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Seoul 1988, a Kalusha Bwalya hat-trick had propelled them to a 4-0 thumping of an Italy side in including Ciro Ferrera, Luigi de Agostini and Andrea Carnevale en route to topping Group B. That same year that same player had beaten the likes of Roger Milla, Rabah Madjer and George Weah to become the first Zambian to be crowned the African Footballer of the Year. The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) finished third at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1990, and had recorded first- and third-placed finishes at the two previous CECAFA Cups. Things were even blooming for Zambian clubs: Nkana reached the final of the African Champions’ Cup – a precursor to the CAF Champions League – in 1990, while Power Dynamos won the African Cup Winners’ Cup the following year.

Passion for football was indescribable, and confidence was sky high that Zambian class would be parading itself on the sport’s biggest platform in 1994. The team had won their first-phase pool to move into the final round of African Zone qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™. All Zambia had to do was emerge top of a three-team group including continental giants Morocco and Senegal to book a ticket to the USA.

First up was a trip to Dakar, and coach Godfrey Chitalu, his backroom staff and players were in jubilant mood, feeding off the buzz of their compatriots, as they boarded the DHC-5D Buffalo aircraft in Lusaka 20 years ago today.

They felt they were poised to continue their fairytale adventure from obscurity to the FIFA World Cup. They were actually, by harrowing contest, set to partake in a tragedy of inexplicable proportions. For shortly after the plane’s second stop-off in Libreville, Gabon, it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 30 passengers – 25 of whom were Zambia national team players or coaches.

“There are no words to describe the devastation,” recalled Kalusha, whose life was spared – along with that of Charles Musonda’s – because they were making their own way to the Senegalese capital because of club commitments with PSV and Anderlecht respectively. “Our people didn’t stop crying. There was so much hope, so much excitement, and it was all just shattered.”

Zambia were expected to withdraw from USA 1994 qualifying. The inspiration machine that was Kalusha had other ideas. He helped them scrape together a new team. What it lacked in experience in compensated for in desire. Little over five weeks after the tragedy of Libreville, Kalusha and Johnson Bwalya earned them a 2-1 win at home to the mighty Morocco in their Group B opener. There was barely a dry eye among the 50,000-plus in the Independence Stadium that night.

“It was such an emotional occasion,” said Kalusha. “The friends we had lost we had in our thoughts, and we gave such a wonderful performance for them.”

Zambia drew away to Senegal before thrashing the same team 4-0 at home. Those results left them needing a point in Morocco to complete arguably the unlikeliest FIFA World Cup qualification in history. The southern Africans were on course for that for over an hour, but a 62nd-minute Abdeslam Laghrissi goal ultimately proved enough to end their dream and book the Moroccans an American adventure.

Just two months before USA 1994 kicked off, however, Kalusha and his young team-mates had again made their nation indescribably proud. Zambia, indeed, unexpectedly reached the Cup of Nations final in Tunisia, where few gave them a hope of upsetting Sunday Oliseh, Jay Jay Okocha, Finidi George, Emmanuel Amuneke, Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, Rashidi Yekini and Co. It took the Chipolopolo a mere three minutes to take a shock lead through Elijah Litana, and though an Amuneke brace edged the Super Eagles a 2-1 victory, the heroic Zambians were champions in the hearts of football followers the world over for, somehow, managing to achieve so much following such a catastrophe in Libreville.

It was, therefore, fitting that the scene of Zambian football’s greatest tragedy was the scene of its greatest triumph: in 2012, following another period of footballing obscurity, Zambia sensationally won the Cup of Nations in the Gabonese capital. The conquest was, naturally, dedicated to the 30 people who lost their lives on 27 April 1993 – a disaster that spurned this tear-jerking tale.