Zambian soccer 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.
In that 1993 crash, Zambia lost probably their best-ever team in their 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 are hoping to honor the memory of that team by returning to Libreville on Feb. 12 to play in the Africa Cup of Nations final, and turn the city into a place of joy.
Zambia are based in neighboring Equatorial Guinea, Gabon’s co-host, for the first part of the African championship and will only reach Libreville at the semi-final 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 were 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 Africa Cup a year later on a wave of emotion, but they lost to Nigeria and have 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 soccer confederation Web site. “Imagine if we could lift the trophy, it would be a fantastic way to honor 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.
However, Bwalya, the country’s greatest player and now their soccer 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 traveled to their base in Bata in Equatorial Guinea, they were sent a message by Zambian 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.