Triumph on Sacred Ground

After the Zambian soccer team perished in a plane crash, a new team rose to bring hope to a troubled nation
October 17, 1993

You start with the graves. You have to start with the graves. You stand in the middle of the arid African landscape on a warm afternoon, surrounded by the 30 mounds of earth, not knowing where to look first. The dust blows into your face. The sun beats onto your head. You try to catalog all of the feelings, try to capture the sight and the emotions in words, but how can you do that? You stand and mostly you gape.

"This was the goaltender," a security guard says. "Efford Chabala. Oh, Chabala, he was very good. Very, very good."

You stare at the black-and-white picture of Chabala that is attached to a thin wooden stick behind one of the mounds. A head shot. You read the printing underneath the picture, his name and the fact that he lived from 1960 to 1993 and played for the Mufulira Wanderers and for Zambia. You squint to read the smaller writing, maybe from a half-dozen hands, messages that have been scribbled in pencil or ballpoint pen, messages of condolence, messages of farewell. "You have left us alone," one of them says. "What are we to do now?"

You look at all the pictures, one picture behind each of the 30 mounds. Many of the black faces are so young, faces that could be from a yearbook, from a college football program on a Saturday afternoon, 18 soccer players and then the coaches and the trainer and then the officials of the Zambia national team and then the crew of the de Havilland DHC-5 Buffalo airplane that dropped into the Atlantic Ocean just before midnight on April 27 off the coast of the tiny African country of Gabon. How can this be? All these people?

The dust and sun have turned the edges of the pictures a faded brown in five months' time. Everything seems faded. The remnants of burial wreaths cover each of the graves, the colors of the satin ribbons faded, the real flowers long gone, the artificial flowers also faded. Plastic sheets have been laid over some of the graves, helping to keep the presentations intact. Cinder blocks have been set upon the sheets to keep them in place. The cinder blocks are chipped and broken, the plastic colored brown, again from the dust. Everything is brown.

"There is going to be a memorial here." the security guard says. "Something permanent. There will be grass and terraces and stone. But we have to wait until the rains come at the end of November, when the ground is soft, to begin."

There is no rain now. Nothing close. The guard says that for three months there was little security, and children would come here and play among the graves. They would take the flowers, climb on the mounds, deface the pictures. They would play soccer right here, play soccer in their bare feet, children as young as four and five years old, playing with a ball made from newspapers crammed tightly inside a paper or plastic bag, the way all children learn how to play soccer in Zambia. This could not continue. That is why there is more security now.

"This is sacred ground," the guard says. "These are our national heroes."

You stand on this desolate and memorable sacred ground, no more than a few hundred yards from Independence Stadium, the biggest stadium in the country, a ramshackle structure on the outskirts of the capital, Lusaka, that seats 30,000 spectators and resembles a tired minor league baseball park. You are quietly overwhelmed. How do you describe all that has happened, the death of this one team, followed by the rise of a new, replacement team that has done so much more than anyone expected, that has brought pride and hope to an impoverished country where hope is rationed in only the smallest doses? How do you combine the happiest happy this country has ever known with the saddest sad it has ever known, everything played out against a backdrop of the miseries of modern sub-Saharan Africa? What do you do? A Zambian television broadcaster, Dennis Liwewe, has said, "From the ashes of disaster, our soccer program is headed for glory, glory hallelujah." You start with the ashes.

"I was going out for a run," Kalusha Bwalya says. "It was around noon. I was all dressed for running. The phone rang. Since I was playing in Holland, the plan was for me to fly down to Senegal the next day from Amsterdam to join the national team. The caller was the accountant from our football association in Lusaka. This was different, since usually the secretary from the association calls me, but I figured the call had to do with my trip.

"The accountant sounded strange, though. He asked, 'How are you, Kalusha?' I said I was fine. 'How are you feeling?' he asked. I said I was fine. 'Nothing wrong?' Nothing. He kept going along like this, and I didn't know what was happening. He couldn't tell me the bad news. Finally, he said I would have to delay my trip. 'Why is that?' I asked. He said the boys on the team didn't arrive in the Ivory Coast, where they were supposed to spend last night. 'Didn't arrive?' I asked. 'How is that possible?' He said there was something with the plane. 'Something with the plane?' I asked. He said they had confirmed reports that the plane had crashed and everyone was dead.

"I couldn't believe it. I said this couldn't be true. But then I turned on BBC and CNN, and there it was. The plane had crashed. Everyone was dead."

Everyone dead. Kalusha, the team's star forward, was spared because he was in Holland, and two other players were also supposed to fly in from Europe, but everyone else selected to play against Senegal in Dakar in the opening game of second-round qualifying for the World Cup perished. The depth of the tragedy was almost unimaginable. Making an analogy to a similar accident in America is impossible. The death of the entire U.S. Olympic hockey team? The death of the entire basketball Dream Team? This, hard to believe, was an even deeper loss. This was the disappearance of a country's biggest national treasure.

Soccer, football, is far and away the sport of Zambia, a landlocked country the size of Texas, located in the south of the continent. Turn a corner in Lusaka and you see a game. The ball might be made of paper and rope, the goals designated by sticks or rocks, the players in bare feet, but the game is everywhere. The British brought soccer with them when the country was a colony known as Northern Rhodesia, and along with language and tradition, soccer has remained, long after the British were ousted. In a poor country it is virtually the only team game. Who has the money even for the sneakers and equipment of basketball? Soccer is the game that all boys play, a basic component of their upbringing, even more basic than baseball in the U.S., which must battle for attention against the computer games and swimming pools and round-the-clock television of an affluent society. There is no battle in Zambia.

"You play...everybody plays the same way as a boy," Aggrey Chiyangi, a fullback on the new Zambian team, says. "Someone makes the ball, which lasts two or three days, depending on how long you play each day. If you are good, you make a team somewhere and play with a real ball. All with bare feet. I think I was in grade seven when I received my first pair of boots. I remember the first time I ever played with them, I took them off at halftime. They seemed so heavy to me. I could not move."

This Zambian national team was the distillation, the end result, of all of that soccer. It was not some put-together outfit for a wide-eyed shot at notoriety. It was a veteran team, mostly players in their late 20's and early 30's, players who had performed together for five and six and seven years. Six of them were on the squad that shocked Italy 4-0 and finished tied for fifth in the 1988 Olympics, the brightest moment in Zambian soccer history. That was when the players were kids, unknowns. They had experience now. This team, the winner of its earlier World Cup qualifying round, was favored to reach the final Cup tournament next year, in the U.S.

For a country in which malaria and cholera are everyday worries, a country where capitalism and democracy have emerged only in the past two years after the 27 years of socialism under Kenneth Kaunda, which followed independence in 1964, a country with virtually no industry except a string of copper mines in the north, this team was a statement to the outside world: See what we can do? This is our potential. No country from this far south on the continent had ever qualified for the final Cup round. This would be the first. This was the team that would separate Zambia from Zimbabwe and Namibia and Angola and Madagascar and Uganda and all the rest of the countries that always seem to be confused in the cluttered minds of the West.

This was the team that died.

"I was supposed to go with them," Goliath Mungonge, a 30-year-old sportswriter for the Zambia Daily Mail, says. "I had an argument with my wife because she didn't want me to go. We have a young son, and she told me I already had been to Senegal once, so I didn't have to go. I didn't care. I still was going. I even had packed my clothes. The problem was that they were scheduled to leave at four in the morning. I had trouble getting money, no banks open at that time. As it turned out, the plane was eight hours late in leaving—it didn't go until around noon—and I would have had time to get the money. But I didn't know that."

The 20-year-old Canadian-built plane was a Zambian military transport that had been refurbished three years before. The team often used military planes, as recently as a day earlier to return from a game on the island nation of Mauritius, 1,900 miles away. Commercial airline travel is expensive in Africa because there are few direct routes between cities. As with everything else in Zambia, a country that has no professional soccer simply because professional soccer would be too expensive, the use of that plane was an economy measure.

The route to Dakar was a series of hops determined by the need to refuel. The first hop went to Brazzaville, in Congo, the second to Libreville, on the coast of Gabon. The third hop was scheduled to go to Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, where the team would spend the night before a final hop to Dakar the next day. After the initial eight-hour delay, the trip proceeded.

What happened next is confusing. Some radio reports said that the 44-year-old pilot, Capt. Fenton Mike Mhone, wanted technicians to check a mechanical problem in Brazzaville. The BBC reported that a technician worked on the plane in Libreville. And there are other accounts that Mhone had no complaints at all. Whatever, the plane took off and reached a height of 6,000 feet; radio contact ceased a minute after departure. The takeoff path went out over the ocean and the pilot began to case the plane into its flight pattern toward Abidjan. Witnesses said they saw an explosion. Or was it two explosions? One witness said she saw a beam of light shoot through the air, followed by two explosions. A beam of light? The plane dropped into the ocean.

"It was confusing then, and it is contusing now," says Mungonge, who went to Libreville after the crash. "The fuselage landed 10 kilometers off the coast, where the mud at the bottom of the sea is very thick. The fuselage still is there. There was no black box because this was a military aircraft, and Gabon has refused to release the tapes of conversations back to the tower. It has become an incident between the governments. What happened? You think that something went wrong with the plane, but we may never know.

"Every day there seem to be new rumors," says Mungonge. "One is that the plane was shot down by a missile from a former French base by a Gabonese national guard unit in training. That would explain the beam of light. This was a military plane, remember, that had arrived late and maybe wasn't expected. Another rumor is that there was a bomb on the plane. Another, and this one is everywhere, is that the team is still alive. That they are being held captive in Gabon, that the bodies that were found really were the bodies of political prisoners in Gabon. I don't believe this at all, but that doesn't mean people don't talk about it."

News of the disaster was held off Zambian television for more than 12 hours while officials tried to make sure that a crash had really occurred. When the first reports started to surface on other networks, the government released what it knew at quarter past one in the afternoon. The entire country was dropped into grief. Liwewe, the broadcaster, cried for 20 minutes on the air, shouting the name of each player, uncontrollable in his misery. The grim news was a flashbulb that froze a moment forever.

"I was shopping, and this woman came up to me on the street," Peggy Wilma Mwape, wife of Michael Mwape, the late chairman of the Football Association of Zambia, says. "She said, 'Peggy, did your husband go with the team to Senegal?' I said that he left yesterday. 'Are you sure that he went?' she said. I said I was sure. She didn't say anything else but asked if she could give me a ride home. She never told me, just gave me a ride home—she was afraid that I would hear the news on the radio if I drove myself—and she dropped me off. It was my daughter who told me. She said when I came in, 'Daddy's gone.' "

"I was buying cement building blocks for our new house on that sad Wednesday," Doreen Mankinka, whose husband, Debby, was a starting midfielder, says. "I was tired and went into a store for a drink with my brother. The news was on the radio. We looked at each other. We thought it was some kind of lie. We went home and listened to the radio at home, and it was not a lie. From then on, I was just unconscious. I remember thinking, How will I ever wake up again in the morning?"

Her husband was 26 years old. She is the mother of two daughters, five and three years old. Her son, Davy John, was one month old when his father died. The 30 men on the plane were fathers to 90 children.

There was never much doubt that another team would be formed to play out the World Cup qualifying schedule. There was never really an argument against continuing. The idea that a new team should be built seemed as natural as the idea that the old team—everyone on the plane—should be buried together in the open land beside the stadium. The second round of World Cup qualifying would be a three-team round-robin, home and home against Morocco and Senegal, the winner qualifying to play in the U.S. The first Zambia-Senegal game, naturally, was rescheduled. The team was given time to rebuild.

"We have to go on," Kalusha told reporters as he arrived for the memorial service and funeral. "I don't know whether we will be able to build another team, but we must not give up."

The 30 coffins were shipped back from Libreville, and the drive from the Lusaka airport to the stadium, usually a 15-minute trip, took three hours as people gathered along the roads in tears. The coffins were stretched the length of the soccer field, and the stadium was left open all night for the public to pay its respects. On May 3, a third and final national day of mourning, the stadium was filled, and at least 100,000 people gathered outside as President Frederick Chiluba tearfully delivered his eulogy. HEROES LAID TO REST, the headline in the Daily Mail read. The paper reported that 130 people at the funeral fainted and two women went into labor.

"For that entire week I wasn't worth anything," Morris Gwebente, a 30-year-old mechanic, a Zambian soccer fan, says. "I didn't want to talk with anyone. I just wanted to be alone. I sat in that stadium at the memorial and wondered if I ever could watch soccer again. I thought about all those guys.... I knew them all. How could it be that I would never see them again?"

The effort to build a new team evolved in the next month. Invitations were given to 30 players from the midlands, which is the area around Lusaka, and to 30 more from the cities of the Copper Belt, to the north. Tryouts were held at both locations. Kalusha and his brother, Joel, who plays in Belgium, and a couple of others from professional teams outside Zambia were automatic choices, and a handful of other players who had been dropped from the national team earlier were strong possibilities, but the rest of the talent was young and without international experience. Freddie Mwila, a Zambian native who once played for the Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League, was asked to assemble and guide the new team. He was working as the national coach in Botswana, but how could he resist this call from his country at a time like this? He was allowed by Botswana to get out of his contract.

He knew many of the players, had known some of them since they were children in various youth leagues, but he had no idea what kind of team he could build. He made cuts and then more cuts, working his roster down to 30 players. The neighboring country of Malawi offered to play a series of three benefit matches to help in the process. The benefits, played in late May in Zambia, gave Mwila the first idea that there might be some possibilities.

"We tied the first game 1-1," he says. "Then we lost the second 1-0. The final game we won easily, 4-2. What I tried to emphasize, from the beginning, was that what has happened has happened and that we had to move ahead. We could not be the other team. Those guys were together for five, six years. They had some brilliant individual players, a brilliant style. We had to find our own style. We had to do it without emotion. We had to just play."

Help came from various sources. Money arrived, donated not only to help the families of the departed players but also to help rebuild Zambian soccer. The world soccer community was involved. Offers of expense-paid training trips were made by various countries. The offer from Denmark was accepted. Mwila felt this was the best way to remove emotion from the equation. Go to Denmark for a month.

"There was too much going on here," Mwila says. "Getting away was just what we needed. We had kids who had never traveled. Some of them were scared of color, of playing against white people. Some were scared of environment, playing away from home. We went to Denmark, played some games against sonic very good club teams, and pretty soon these kids weren't scared anymore."

For the first time, through sad circumstance, this Third World team had New World, Old World advantages. For the first time there was money. No team from Zambia had ever trained like this in a foreign country. A Danish coach, Roald Poulsen, added some strategic assistance in Denmark. The British offered the services of Ian Porterfield, a Scotsman who had been fired as coach of Chelsea in the British Premier League. Porterfield would coach through the second round of World Cup qualifying, all expenses paid. The offer was accepted, Mwila becoming an assistant. The individual skills learned barefoot in the dirt would be merged with high-level professional coaching experience from Europe.

How well would all this work? The second qualifying round began at Independence Stadium against Morocco on July 4, just as Porterfield arrived. Nobody really knew what to expect.

"I hadn't played with three quarters of the team before it was put together," Kalusha says. "I'd been in Europe while these kids were growing up. I didn't even know them."

"If Zambia had an advantage," says Porterfield, "it was that Morocco didn't know what to expect because it never had seen this team."

The team's entrance onto the field was amazing. The day was amazing. The stands were filled, the people on the top rows able to look out and see a procession of police vehicles and cars and motorcycles coming down the road to the stadium. At the rear was the team bus. The procession drove around the outside of the stadium, paused briefly next to the graves, then entered the stadium and drove a long route around the running track. In one of the cars were President Chiluba and various state officials, who headed for the presidential box. The team bus stopped, and the team ran onto the field, headed by Kalusha, the star of both the old team and the new team. Did Morocco have a chance? A moment of silence was held for the departed players.

"It's a fact," Gwebente, the fan, says. "We Africans, we are Christian, most of us, but we also are believers in the spiritual. Morocco took a 1-0 lead in the first half, and you could see people standing, down at the end of the stadium that is near the graves. They were turned in the direction of the graves. They were shouting to the departed players, calling their names, asking for help. Where are you now that we need your help? What are you going to do about this? We need your help now. I was shouting along with everyone else. Then Kalusha scored on a direct kick and then we scored again.... I don't know about spirits. I just say what happened."

The word miracle was mentioned more than once. Zambia 2, Morocco 1. The Moroccan players openly discussed the presence of spirits in attendance, the feeling from the crowd. Had the timing of any win anywhere ever been better? One small ration of hope had suddenly been returned.

"The load has become bigger and bigger," Chiyangi, the fullback, says. "At first we were expected to do nothing, just to fill out the form. Now we are expected to win all the time."

The date is Sept. 27, a day after the Zambians have belted Senegal 4-0 at Independence Stadium before another giddy crowd. The game was no contest, a rout. The win has given them a one-point lead in their qualifying group. They have one game left, on Oct. 10 against Morocco in Casablanca. If they tie or win, they qualify for the Cup final-round tournament next year, in the U.S. If they lose, alas, they are done.

The new team is undefeated in official matches. That first win over Morocco in July was followed by a scoreless tie with Senegal a month later, and then another month of expenses-paid training in France and the Netherlands. In games to qualify for the African Nations Cup, also to be played next year, the team beat South Africa and tied Zimbabwe to reach the final round. Half of Zambia seemed to follow the team to the match in Harare, Zimbabwe, spilling into the streets after the 0-0 tie, chanting, 'Chipolopolo, yo! Chipolopolo, yo!' That is the slogan for this team. It comes from the tribal dialect Nyanja and means "strong, impervious, unbeatable." Chipolopolo, yo!

"It has been an unbelievable experience being here for all of this," Porterfield, the coach, says. "When we've played at home, it's been as if only one team was meant to win. After the tragedy and all, this team has been sort of the focal point for the entire country. I've seen some amazing things, some very good talent, raw talent. I saw a local game the other day, just kids, no shirts, no shoes on. I saw things that made you stand up. I saw a kid dribble down the side and smash one in, 35 yards off the goal, unbelievable. If you ever could put together the financing, the proper structure, the teaching in a place like this...some African country is going to come very close to winning the World Cup very soon."

The new team has been far different from the old team, the system entirely different, the personalities as well. The stress has been on teamwork, unity, more than on individual brilliance. Kalusha, 31, and striker Gibby Mbasela, who plays professionally in Germany, have been the offensive standouts. Goalkeeper James Phiri, previously untested internationally, has been a surprise. Another goaltender, the first choice, had been left off the old team at the last moment for that fatal trip to Senegal. He was so shaken by the tragedy that he quit, refusing to join the new team. Phiri has been the answer.

"Actually, I also had practiced with the other national team," he says. "There is a chance I would have played with them, would have been on the plane, except my mother died. Malaria. I was at her funeral when I heard the news of the team. All of that at once, my mother, the team, my friends. I was twisted inside, but I am all right now."

The other continuing stories from the disaster have not been so nice. The words between the Zambian government and the Gabonese government become more harsh with each exchange. The fuselage continues to sit at the bottom of the ocean, and there still is no explanation of what happened. A problem has also arrived for the widows and children of the victims. Many of them have been disowned by their former in-laws, wrangles erupting over property and the cash settlements that have arrived for survivors.

"It is an African concept of family," Debby Mankinka's widow, Doreen, says. "A wife is not considered part of her husband's family. Some terrible things have happened. Wives have been thrown out of their homes. In-laws have claimed that the wives never were married to their sons. My own in-laws came to my house the day of the funeral—the day of the funeral!—and took everything. The television. The stereo. They unscrewed the light bulbs from the ceiling. They took the picture hooks from the walls. What could I do? The money we received was supposed to buy food and clothing for our children, but instead we have had to spend it to replace household goods that were taken. They took the beds. We have lawyers now, working on all of this."

"My husband had two sons when I married him," Peggy Mwape says. "They were three years old and one. I raised those children as my own. The oldest now is 23. All those years, I raised those children. I see my in-laws now and they will not even offer me a cup of tea. It is all very sad."

There have been no psychiatrists involved, no grief counselors to help with pain. The wives have even been discouraged from visiting the graves with their children. It is not their place. Everyone must move forward. The national psychiatrist, the national grief counselor, has seemingly been this new soccer team as much as anyone or anything.

"Oh, how am I supposed to watch soccer?" Mankinka says. "I watched soccer because my husband played. I watched him. Who am I supposed to watch now? For me, soccer died on that airplane. I hope this new team does well, but for me...."

The newspapers follow all of the stories, but the soccer team draws some of the biggest headlines. No Zambian team has ever come so close. One more point. Only a tie in Casablanca. The finals in America. Is that too much to ask? Every practice is ringed by spectators. Every subtlety is discussed. Kalusha is cheered if he walks down a street.

"We'll go there and do our best," he says. "Already it has been so much better than I thought it would be. We may not be so technically advanced, but we play this game from the heart."

"I have seen better teams, perhaps," Mwila says, "but never a team with this determination."

You visit the graves one more time on the day you leave Zambia. You travel to the site with Kalusha in a Third World taxi, a battered Datsun with a cracked windshield and a transmission that grinds and whines through every gear change, the sounds of metal rubbing directly upon metal. You pass the open markets of Lusaka, racks and racks of secondhand clothes. You pass the trucks filled with workers, maybe 50 men packed into the open end, everyone standing, pressed together. You pass the women sitting at the side of the road, a display of maybe six oranges or five bags of maize in front of them for sale. You pass the children, all the children, children wandering everywhere, packs of barefoot children from the imagination of Dickens, drawn here in the black ink of a different continent.

You walk with Kalusha among the 30 mounds of earth. He, too, reads the messages that have been written next to the faded pictures, the pictures of his teammates and friends. He, too, is quiet and reflective. What is he thinking? How many conflicting feelings must run through him? The problem remains. How to describe all of this? Africa. Poverty. Death. Hope. Soccer.

"I still think these guys are going to show up one of these days," Kalusha says. "These were boys with ambition. All of them. The back line had played together, intact, forever. The keeper, Chabala. My friends. I see their families suffering now, and it bothers me so much. All of them."

He sighs.

"It will be all right," Kalusha finally says. "In Africa we believe that the spirits must be satisfied. If someone dies, everything must be done properly for that person. Everything has been done properly here. These are the spirits behind us. They are not forgotten."

Less than two weeks later, far removed from all of this, you call the sports department of your local American newspaper on a Sunday afternoon. The baseball playoffs are in progress and the NFL is going strong and the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in college football played each other on Saturday. You ask for the score that interests you most, the one from Casablanca.

"Morocco 1, Zambia 0," an anonymous voice answers.

You take a moment to digest the news. The most dramatic story of the World Cup is finished before it reached the American stage. You share the heartbreak, long distance.

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY PHOTOGEORGES MICHEL/AFRICAN SOCCERKalusha mourns his former team (above) at the grave site outside Independence Stadium. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY[See caption above.] PHOTOSIMON BRUTYThe ball is homemade and the feet are bare, but soccer is played everywhere in Zambia. TWO PHOTOSSIMON BRUTYWatching the national team, with or without a seat, can be an uplifting experience. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYJoel Bwayla (white) is one of the veteran players heading up the new national team. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYAfter the tragedy the new team became the focal point for an entire nation. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYFamilies suffer because widows like Mankinka have been disowned by in-laws. PHOTOCLIVE BRUNSKILL/ALLSPORTZambia's World Cup dreams were flattened on Sunday by a 1-0 loss to Morocco.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)