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Black History Month: A nation loses its brightest stars

A tragic plane crash robbed Zambia of its greatest soccer team

Football in Zambia Photo by Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Zambia was set to head to Dakar to play Senegal in a World Cup qualifier on April 27, 1993. The team’s flight path was to take it from Zambia to Brazzaville, Congo, to Libreville, Gabon and then to Abidjan, Ivory Coast before finally arriving in Dakar.

The team never made it. In one of the most terrible tragedies in world soccer history, Zambia’s plane crashed, killing all 30 people on board: 18 players, 4 members of the coaching staff and medical team, the Zambian federation’s chairman, a journalist, and the entirety of the flight’s crew.

The Zambian team was one that many thought was destined for greatness. The Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) announced its presence on the international stage by defeating Italy 4-0 in the 1988 Olympics. They had dreams of making the World Cup for the first time and even hoisting its first Africa Cup of Nations trophy. It was considered the best Zambian team ever and many think the team could have been one of the best in African history. Those dreams were shattered in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Libreville, Gabon on that fateful April day in 1993.

The team’s flight to Dakar had been arranged by the Zambian Air Force, but had a pilot that had flown from Mauritius to Zambia the day before flying the team. The DHC-5 Buffalo plane had several defects, but it still departed Lusaka, Zambia with the planned refueling stops in Brazzaville, Libreville, and Abidjan. After refueling in Libreville, the plane took off and the pilot reported a fire in the left engine. Due in part to his fatigue and a faulty panel light, he accidentally switched off the right engine, causing the entire plane to lose power. The plane crashed into the ocean just 500 meters off the beach in Libreville, killing the 25 passengers and 5 crew members.

Among the dead were some of the best that Zambia had to offer. Their coach, Godfrey Chitalu, was considered the greatest player in Zambia’s history. He had a storied career, scoring 79 goals for Zambia in 108 appearances. He had just taken over as head coach of the team. The captain of the team, Kalusha Bwalya, was not on board due to his commitment to play a match for PSV Eindhoven before making separate arrangments to join the team in Dakar. A couple other players had made similar arrangements, but most of the team died that day on the plane.

The news of the plane crash rocked the nation of 16 million, sending them into mourning. The deceased were buried outside Independence Stadium in Lusaka in a special monument called Heroes’ Acre. For a long time, Zambians felt that the Gabonese had shot the plane down mistakenly, and relations between the two nations were extremely cold for years.

Meanwhile, the Zambian federation quickly put together a new team to complete World Cup qualifying and to compete in the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations. While they did not qualify for the World Cup, the newly assembled team, led by Bwalya, made it all the way to the final, where they lost to Nigeria. The team returned home as national heroes.

It all came full circle for Zambia in 2012, when they finally won their first Africa Cup of Nations in an incredible match against the Ivory Coast in Libreville, just meters from the site where the plane crashed. They had honored their fallen heroes by hoisting the trophy that they were destined to win.

The 1993 Zambian plane crash shook the soul of Africa. Too many young players, some of the best the continent had to offer, taken down in an instant. Zambians will never forget that day, when they lost the majority of their greatest soccer team ever.