CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – Zambian football will on Friday commemorate the 30th anniversary of the plane crash that wiped out nearly the entire national team and mourn the loss of a golden generation that players say will lead the nation to eventual victories has inspired.
Eighteen footballers were among 30 dead when a Zambian Air Force plane crashed off the coast of Gabon shortly after stopping for fuel en route to Dakar where Zambia was due to play a World Cup qualifier against Senegal.
The bulk of the squad was made up of veteran internationals eager to finish first in their finals qualifying group and secure their first ever World Cup final at the 1994 tournament in the United States.
An engine failure after takeoff from Libreville caused the plane to crash into the sea, killing everyone on board, including the trainers, support staff and crew.
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It was a devastating blow, said captain Kalusha Bwalya, who followed news of the crash on CNN from his home in the Netherlands, as one of four players who had to fly from bases in Europe rather than on the plane from Lusaka.
But just two months later, Bwalya led a newly formed team to victory in a World Cup qualifier against Morocco, curling a free-kick over the wall and into the net to trigger ecstatic celebrations.
“We were thinking of the friends we had lost and we gave them such a wonderful performance,” he recalled.
A year after the crash, the team surprisingly reached the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations final in Tunisia, losing 2-1 to Nigeria.
Friday’s ceremony will begin at a memorial in the shadow of Lusaka’s Independence Stadium, where the players who died in the crash were buried. Those paying tribute will head to the new National Heroes Stadium that has been built nearby.
Zambia finally won the African title 20 years after the disaster – in Gabon, the site of the crash. Just days before the final, players threw flowers into the sea on the beach where the bodies were washed up.
“We wanted to honor the dead players and that strengthened us. The plane crashed in Gabon and we won the final in Gabon. It’s a sign of fate,” said coach Herve Renard at the time.
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