IN 1993 I WROTE ABOUT THE ZAMBIAN SOCCER TRAGEDY.............
Imagine loosing all the Red Sox players. No more Rocket, Pena,Vaughn, Fletcher, Greenwell, nothing. All gone. All at once. The budding Charlotte Hornets, pride of North Carolina. Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning primed, ready for the playoffs. Beating Boston, then gone. All in the blinkof an eye.
On April 27th, 1993, a military plane carrying 30 passengers crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gabon. John Starks head-butting of Reggie Miller during the Knick-Pacer series received more media attention. The crash killed 18 of Zambia's top football (soccer)players as well as the hopes and dreams of 8 million people. The tragedy can be likened to the Peruvian plane crash that eventually became a movie. The difference is, no one survived. In Africa, death is viewed with reverence, so you can be sure there will be no movies.
This was the team Zambians felt would; for the first time in its 29 year old history; take itself and the rest of the country to the world cup. The blend of international and local players was perfect. Kalusha Bwalya, Charles Musonda, Johnstone Bwalya, Kenneth Malitoli and Gibby Mbasela are the internationals that make-up the fulcrum of the team. I speak of them in the present tense because they, unlike their comrades, will play again. Local players like Derby Mankinka, Timothy Mwitwa, Samuel Chomba, Efford Chabala (once voted Africa's best goalkeeper) and Eston Mulenga all perished.
Most of the players came from humble beginnings. As kids they walked the streets seeking papers to wrap up and make into balls. They played football barefoot late into the night. Their play was a means of ignoring the growling in their empty bellies. This scenario epitomizes the beginnings of many "third world" players. From dust fields to plush greens, reaching the World Cup is the dream of every ompetitive soccer player. Our dust field, barefooted players were taking us to the World Cup, we had little doubt. In a country where the average man spends his time figuring out how to get his next meal, there is little that can equal the loss. To fully comprehend this,one must understand that football is the main form of recreation in Zambia.
It is the avenue with which the daily rigors of basic survival are forgotten. All political, social and economic differences are put on hold. The country unites. Brothers and sisters with one goal, "cheer the boys".Yes Africa has problems. People are starving in Ethiopia and Somalia,brothers and sisters constantly dodge bullets in South Africa, dictators,uneducated leaders, corrupt governments, large scale poverty, disease and other grave problems too numerous to mention. Africa also has many questions. Is the West perpetuating our plight? Are we being taught table manners and not how to grow and cook food? Has there been a systematic plan to target us for destruction? How much more of this forked tongue, double standard super power alliance garbage is necessary before Africa can get real help? We recognized all the questions but, like a cult, were oblivious to them as we watched our team progress along the ladder towards the World Cup.
We were oblivious to discussions of reparations for descendants of slaves, social and economic impacts of the slave trade, western influence in African politics, the prosecution of those that assassinated Patrice Lumumba and conditional aid. All we could see was the inevitable berth in one of the World Cup groups. We didn't have illusions of grandeur. We would not win but at least we would be there. As the dust from our drought ridden land rose around us, we ignored the little fingers of our children prodding us,innocent eyes begging for sustenance. Like avid baseball fans during the penchant race we were glued to the television, beer in hand. We answered all questions without once taking our eyes off the screen. After all we didn't want
to miss the "Bwalya pass" that set-up the goal. Similar to basketball fans not wanting to miss a second of Micheal Jordan's 54 point performance, we ignored our wives. Our love-lives suffered. We put aside our hunger. We had our football and we could taste the World Cup.
The Zambian team following became a cult. Born of a need to vent frustration, our cult believed that the team could conquer all. We could see the promised land. The team, young and vivacious, led us on. The cult gained fervor after an exemplary performance in the Seoul, Korea Olympics. The highlight of which was, beating Italy 4-0. Yes, this was our triumph. "Our boys" had beaten the hunger, colonialism, apartheid, illiteracy,violence, disease and neo-colonialism, if but for a moment. We cheered them on. They were representing us. Each deft move, each goal was a personal
victory for each Zambian. In their triumphs each of us won a personal battle.Our cult leaders led us in the pursuit of a little gold cup that would bring with it an unimaginable national achievement. But alas, the ugly hand of fate reached out.
Two generations of players were lost. Godfrey "Ucar" Chitalu, coach,once the most feared and revered striker on the African continent died in the crash. He in the 70's, was what Abedi Pele', Nii Lamptey, Charles Musonda and Kalusha Bwalya aspire to be. Usually double marked by opposing teams, he was difficult to contain. As a player, he had led the national team to the finals of the 1974 Africa Cup of Nations competition. It was the countries hope that his leadership and that of Alex Chola (the first Zambian professional player) would lead us all the way. We lost these men and more, all in the span of seconds.
Our dreams were lost in those few seconds that it took to extinguish 30 lives. Never in our history had there been a tragedy of this magnitude. It also could not have come at a more inopportune time. A state funeral, a week of national mourning with the burial of the players, officials and crew at Lusaka's Independence stadium closed the chapter on Zambia's greatest tragedy. But our dilemma is just beginning. We can't pull out of the cup.This would not be fair on the nation, our fallen heroes or the players that are still competing.The rebuilding process has begun with the new team playing a few local matches. We have also received great support from Denmark and England. Denmark offered an all expenses paid training session England, a
professional trainer. Even with all this help, many of us do not feel as deeply about the new team. We find it hard to have similar expectations of them. So excuse us if our attention; to our qualifying for the World Cup; is wavering.
We are now more cognizant of our children prodding us. Their faces are coming into focus. The grumble in our bellies is becoming prominent. We can hear the voices of our wives as they shout " you never listen to me". We have no excuse to buy beer instead of food. Our televisions are off and we must now pay attention to what the kids are doing in school.We want to blame someone for the crash? Who do we blame? God? What restitution will we find as we now turn to face our daily nemesis survival?
Will the two month grace period requested by President Chiluba of Zambia for the rebuilding of the team bring with it a respite from our daily torment? Will this rebuilding translate into a more focused national agenda? Does the West plan on standing by as Africa is ravaged by all imaginable forms of problems? We do not expect handouts but just like there was an inherently strong show of force in the Gulf (protecting oil); we expect similar muscle flexing to the cascade of problems that plague Africa. We shall continue to point fingers until those responsible for creating and perpetuating our problems make a concerted effort to help or, the grumbling in our bellies becomes less noticeable.
As if adding insult to injury, FIFA denied our request to postpone the first games until September. We would not get a chance to breath. Stories have begun flying around our country about the condition of the aircraft. We hear it was faulty, was not pressurized and had numerous mechanical failures in it's history. If this is the case then "our boys" should not have been on that plane. The government has set-up a trust fund for the families of the players and yet what they really should be doing is paying out of their coffers.
After all, it was a government plane and with the capitalist ideas that have become inherent in our system, families may just up and sue for all it's worth. "Hey, that's what I would do". But then again, this is unheard of. We grieve because our dreams have died and all that is left to us is anger, hunger, despair and the rantings and erratic behavior of uneducated politicians.