Flashback: How the Chipolopolo rose from the ashes like the Phoenix

When Christopher Katongo, Zambia’s captain, hoisted the 2012 Africa Cup trophy not long after defender Stoppila Sunzu’s last-gasp penalty had put paid to Cote D’Ivoire’s AFCON claims, the term “it was written in the stars” almost became clichéd.

The term was used repeatedly in news reports after an unstylish, though tenacious, Zambian side, far inferior in quality to previous Chipolopolo sides, had shown how sheer spirit and oneness can win championships. 

For many Zambian fans – and many more neutrals across Africa – 2012 will be remembered as the year Chipolopolo finally came into their own. And for Kalusha Bwalya, the former Football Association of Zambia president, it was a long time coming.

There were genuine tears for the 1988 African Footballer of the Year, by popular acclaim Zambia’s greatest footballer. 

A veteran of six Africa cup tournaments, and top scorer with five goals in the 1996 edition, Kalusha appreciates how most of the class of 2012 were just boys when a plane crash off the coast of Gabon in 1993 wiped out what was arguably the most talented Zambian team ever. Kalusha, then captain, was not on the plane, and was due to fly separately from his base at Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.

The tragic crash brought the nation to grief and set back Zambia’s football development. Pundits are unanimous that the team that perished in the 1993 plane crash was far superior – a team with potential world-class players like goal-a-game Kelvin Mutale, the spearhead of the side, Eston Mulenga, a centre back who combined a delightful elegance with grit, and wing terror Timothy Mwitwa. 

In the ashes of the Gabon tragedy, Kalusha would inspire a reconstituted team to an emotional AFCON final, a 2-1 loss against Nigeria in the 1994 tournament, giving a stirring second half performance in which he continually ran rings round the Super Eagles. 

“Kalusha led the team like a true captain,” Brazilian legend Pele commented after the match. 

Kalusha’s second half display against Nigeria in 1994 was perhaps only outshone by his outrageous showing against Italy in the 1988 Olympics in a Group B game in which Zambia ran the shell-shocked Italians rugged, winning 4-0, with a hat-trick from Kalusha’s gifted left foot. The scoreline was 3-0 at half time. 

As if it was only yesterday, Kalusha remembers the pre-match anxiety of the Italy game. Along with fetch-and-carry midfielder Charles Musonda, Kalusha was the creative spark of that team, well-drilled by the late Samuel “Zoom” Ndhlovu. 

Zambia stormed past the group stage, holding Iraq 2-2, thumping hapless Italy enroute to a similar 4-0 whitewash of Guatemala. It took the clinical finishing of Jürgen Klinsmann to stop a thoroughly technically analysed Zambia in the knock out stage as Germany ruthlessly dispatched them to a 4-0 loss.

It spelt the end of the Olympics fairytale for Zambia, but Kalusha emerged joint runner up in the goal scoring charts, tying on six goals with the Soviet Union’s Igor Dobrosvolski. Brazil’s Romario lit up a memorable tournament with seven goals. 

Brazil, with a stellar cast of players including Romario himself, Bebeto, Careca, Batista and Geovani, eventually lost the final gold medal match 2-1 to the Soviet Union after extra time. 

Four of the Zambian players who died in the 1993 plane crash (Efford Chabala, Samuel Chomba, Derby Mankinka and Wisdom Chansa) played on September 19, 1988 in that never-to-be-forgotten stomp against Italy.

Lucky Msiska, along with Kalusha among the generation of Zambian players who streamed into the Belgian league in the early 1980s, recalls the nail-biting moments in the dressing room ahead of the game. 

“Kalusha inspired us,” he says. “He told us that we must believe in ourselves.”

Three goals, one a cheeky free kick curled in at the near post was Kalusha’s example of self-belief. 

So as the players milled around the middle of the pitch after the 2012 final, the FAZ president shed tears. Of joy. And of sadness of what could have been with the class of 1993.

In 2012 too, Christopher Katongo came into his own, claiming the BBC Footballer of the Year Award. Predictably, he missed out on the CAF Africa footballer of the year version, retained by that brute force of nature called Yaya Toure, the Cote D’Ivoire and Manchester City midfielder.

However, the then 30-year-old Zambia captain beat off competition from Demba Ba, Didier Drogba, Younes Belhanda and Toure himself to become the first winner from southern Africa in the history of the BBC award. 

Yet for Zambia, 2012 was not just about Kalusha, Katongo and the AFCON win. It was also about remembering the exploits of Godfrey Chitalu, who was coach of the team that perished in 1993.

Chitalu scored a massive 107 goals for his club Kabwe Warriors in 1972, the same year German and Bayern Munich legend Gerd Müller set the much-touted and long-standing calendar year goals scoring record of 85 goals only broken in 2012 by Lionel Messi’s 91 goals for Barcelona.

 

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