The Miracle Team
by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 8th2012)
The Miracle – Well Almost
The Super-Eagles last won the African Cup of Nations 18 years ago in Tunisia. They won 2-1, but bar Nigeria’s fans all football wanted the football miracle to happen. No country deserved it more. Zambia had never won the trophy and after what had happened to that country’s team – one that looked set to become the greatest ever Zambian team and possibly one of the best Africa had ever seen too – anyone with heart wanted the miracle to come true.
Against all the odds Zambia refused to allow the worst air disaster ever to affect a national football team to ruin the dream. Led by the great, but still grieving, Kalusha Bwalya, they embarked on the unlikeliest run ever only losing two matches in 1993-94. Sadly one of those matches was the final of the African Cup of Nations.
Without exception no football country has lost more to a plane crash than Zambia.1 Almost 19 years ago – April 28th1993 to be precise – a Zambian Air-force Buffalo DHC-5D piloted by the exhausted Captain Fenton Mhone crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gabon. The plane was quite simply unflightworthy. Faults were discovered in Brazzaville, yet it flew on to Libreville where repairs were attempted.
An engine burst into flames. Tragically, Mhone switched off power to the wrong engine and the plane crashed with no survivors. Among the dead were Kelvin Mutale – he had scored a hat-trick for Zambia just three days earlier – and former Zambian Sports Personality of the Year David Efford Chabala. It also killed one of the country’s greatest players and then national coach, Godfrey Chitalu and his talented assistant Alex Chola.
“I think you cannot cope,” Bwalya told me during an extensive and exclusive interview. “You just have to go on and hopefully one day this whole life would have been worth it, but it’s very, very, difficult for a team to lose that amount of players – team players – in a plane accident and to recover, because you cannot recover from loss of human life.”
Bwalya’s life was saved by the fact that he was playing in Europe for PSV Eindhoven at the time and was due to meet his team-mates in Senegal. He had to put his personal feelings aside and play not only for himself, but his country and his lost team-mates, whose dreams he had to carry with the new team that needed his skill and guidance more than ever before.
In Zambia’s hour of need football united to help. “What we tried to do was start a new team altogether, but what I’m trying to say also is you cannot lose the amount of players – the generation of talented players that we lost – Zambia never recovered,” Bwalya said. “We can’t recover, because we can never substitute one human being for another. We are each human.”
Nevertheless, there was no choice. They had to play.
“What we tried to do – the whole country was always behind us,” Bwalya said. “The international community was always with us. Denmark gave us five weeks training. France gave us also training for free. Holland gave us training for free, so there was a lot of goodwill and from that goodwill we were able to build a team which had a wonderful year from 1993 to 94.”
It was perhaps the most remarkable year in football for any team. “We only lost two games and I think it is a credit to the countries that helped us,” Bwalya said. “A credit to the boys, that came in and stepped in their shoes and also the governments that supported us, because it was almost going to be impossible for us, but we did it.”
The Near Miracle
What Zambia achieved that year was incredible, so how did it happen? “Er we don’t how we did it, but we did it,” Bwalya said. “I think it was through emotions to even think about some of the things that had happened. Some of the players came in and didn’t want to, but had to play the part of the team that was not there to make it a success, so it was very, very difficult, but I think we came in at the right time.”
They had an incredible team spirit, born of tragedy, but determined to live the dream not only for themselves, but for the supremely talented lost generation, whose dreams had been stolen by the tragedy.
“Like I said a lot of things came together – so much fighting spirit and that compensated for the shortcomings in terms of technique and tactics,” Bwalya said, “but I think we played with spirit and with the heart and we played for the boys that were not there with us and tried to carry their dream with us, because their dream was to go to the World Cup and we were trying to achieve what the players had achieved as individuals and it was a roller-coaster. I think that was the most emotional part of my playing career.”
It would require a heart of granite not to wish the best for Hervé Renard and his team as they bid to at least match the achievement of Zambia’s miracle team this evening in Bata and fulfil the dream of the lost generation.
1We at Empower-Sport are of course aware of the impact on Italian football and upon Torino of the 1949 Superga Disaster which killed the Italian national team, then playing for perhaps the greatest club-side ever, Il Grande Torino. See http://empower-sport.com/plugins/p2_news/printarticle.php?p2_articleid=333 and http://empower-sport.com/plugins/p2_articleid=343 for our articles on the loss of Il Grande Torino.