Date: 14th February 2012 at 8:17pm
Written by:
Kalusha Bwalya at the graves of Zambian national team in 1993

Kalusha Bwalya at the graves of Zambian national team in 1993

When Stopila Sunzu put the ball into the back of the Ivory Coast net on Sunday evening, it secured much more than a Zambian African Cup of Nations win.

There may have been more than just  a few United who watched the scenes as the Zambians celebrated and couldn’t help but be reminded of the scenes from Wembley in 1968 when Sir Matt Busby and his team hugged and rejoiced following the 4-1 win over the mighty Benfica.

The similarities between Zambia’s 2012 African Cup of Nations win and United’s European Cup victory are ones bore from tragedy, yet which end in triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds due to the determination and spirit of not just a team but also its coaches and dare I say destiny.

The United teams decimation in the Munich air disaster is one that every Red is all but too familiar with and I won’t waste any one’s time repeating the story which is ingrained on every Stretford Enders mind.

The story of the Zambian national teams tragedy may not be as well known to United but it is one that will resonate strongly with all Reds, perhaps more so than many other football fans who haven’t experienced the loss of practically their entire team and the difficulty that goes with trying to carry on in the face of such devastating circumstances.

In 1993 the Zambian football team looked certain to join the likes of Cameroon and the emerging Nigerian squad as being major African sides on the world stage.

In the Summer Olympics of 1988 Zambia had shocked the world and introduced themselves as a major up and coming force in international football with a 4-0 demolition of Italy.

April 27th 1993 changed the face of Zambian, African and without a doubt World football as a flight carrying the national side to a World Cup qualifier against Senegal, crashed less than a kilometre from Libreville in Gabon, killing all 25 passengers and five crew members.

The disaster would later be attributed to pilot fatigue and instrument error, although in times of such tragedy the “how and whys” barely seem relevant.

The only small solace left for the Zambian nation was the absence on board of captain Kalusha Bwalya- a hat-trick hero against the Italians in 1988- and midfielder Charles Musonda, just as the survival of Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes and a young Bobby Charlton had given United something left to build on in 1958 so it was for Zambia in 1993.

Just as United had defied the odds in 1958 by reaching the FA Cup final, so would Zambia in 1994, reaching the African Cup of Nations final only to be denied by an impressive Nigerian side.

Zambia were desperately unlucky not to be going to the World Cup finals in 1994, missing out by a single point, some questionable decisions in the decisive defeat to Morocco by referee Jean-Fidel Diramba who was from Gabon, a nation the Zambians at the time were unhappy with for their supposed impeding of the crash investigation only added to the sense of injustice and heartache the Zambians felt.

Kalusha Bwalya holds the African Cup aloft 2012

Kalusha Bwalya holds the African Cup aloft 2012

Just as United had slowly rebuilt in the aftermath of Munich so did Zambia in the aftermath of their tragic flight. and Sunday’s victory was a culmination of the efforts and spirit of a nation that refused to give up in the face of such a devastating tragedy. What made the win over Ivory Coasts star-laden team even more poignant was the fact is took place in Libreville only a few hundred metres from the coast where the Zambian team had perished in 1993.

Some people may not in destiny, they may not believe in fate or of people passed away looking down on us, but sometimes the term ‘coincidence’ seems a lot more far-fetched than the idea of what is simply meant to be.

As Kalusha Bwalya, now president of the Zambian football federation lifted the trophy with his triumphant team, even the most hard-faced football fan couldn’t help but be moved.

Well done to the Zambian national side, I’m sure it was a victory the great Sir Matt Busby himself would’ve been proud of.

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