Zambia upset Ivory Coast to win the Africa Cup of Nations title in the same city of its greatest sports tragedy.
Zambia’s national soccer team is colorfully known locally as the “Chipolopolo” – or the Copper Bullets – but over the past three weeks only one tag truly fits.
Following their extraordinary victory in the Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday night, this underdog group of players who grasped their moment in the spotlight forever can be known, quite simply, as the team of destiny.
It was 19 years ago and a handful of miles away from the scene of Zambia’s nerve-jangling penalty shootout upset of hot favorite Ivory Coast that the African nation of 12 million people suffered its greatest sporting tragedy.
Traveling to a World Cup qualifier against Senegal, the Zambian Air Force plane the team was traveling on exploded after taking off from a stop in the Gabon capital of Libreville, killing all 30 passengers. In one heartbreaking moment an entire generation of Zambian soccer talent was destroyed, with only one player, Kalusha Bwalya, having averted death because he had chosen to make his own way to the game.
[Photos: Zambia’s celebration and victory in pictures]
It has taken two decades to rebuild, and even then it was seen as something of an achievement just to qualify for this event. Zambia never has reached a World Cup, is ranked 71st in the world and boasts nowhere near the historical pedigree of Cameroon, South Africa, and Egypt, all of whom missed out on qualifying.
“There was just something about it,” goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene said. “With the tournament being here in Gabon we wanted to take part to honor those who were lost to our country. That made it extra special.”
The event was co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea, where Zambia played all three group games, plus its quarterfinal and semifinal.
“We could only get to Libreville by reaching the final, so we did it,” Coach Herve Renard told the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson after an upset 1-0 win against Ghana in the semifinal. “There is something written that we have to go to play to honor the memories of the Zambia national team that died in 1993. It was catastrophic for the nation. The 12 million people of Zambia are waiting for us to go back to Libreville; immediately after we arrive, we will go to the place.”
For Renard, the journey that culminated in him lifting the trophy was a remarkable one. Eight years ago he was sacked by English club Cambridge United, which now plays in the fifth tier of the English league system.
Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast was the biggest name on the field, but the Chelsea striker lost his nerve when presented with a penalty kick in the second half, blazing his attempt way over the bar.
Zambia held on, through regulation and extra time, to set up the shootout, always the most dramatic of finishes. Goalkeeper Mweene was the chief hero, slotting home his team’s fifth penalty himself, and then stopping Kolo Toure with the score tied at 7-7. Rainford Kalaba spurned Zambia’s first chance to win it, but after Arsenal star Gervinho missed for the Ivory Coast, Stoppila Sunzu fired home the winner to prompt wild celebrations.
“This is magical, magical,” yelled striker Emmanuel Mayuka, one of only two Zambian players to ply his trade in Europe, as other players hugged the 1993 veteran Bwalya, now president of the nation’s soccer federation.
For American fans it was a shame that the game, and the tournament, was not available on television. But nothing can take away a shred of delight from Zambia on the night they gave their fallen forefathers the ultimate tribute.
Martin Rogers is a feature writer for Yahoo! Sports and the host of World Football Daily