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Zambia return to site of tragedy in the hope of first AFCON triumph

The Copper Bullets are bidding to honour their former players who died in the 1993 plane crash by seeing off the Ivory Coast in Libreville this evening.

Zambian captain Christopher Katongo has had a terrific tournament so far.
Zambian captain Christopher Katongo has had a terrific tournament so far.
Image: Rebecca Blackwell/AP/Press Association Images

Zambia v Ivory Coast, KO 7.30pm (Irish time)

EARLIER THIS WEEK, the Zambian national team travelled to Gabon ahead of their first ever appearance in an African Cup of Nations final.

Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets), as they are nicknamed, have done the remarkable by progressing from Group A – sending Senegal packing in the process – and beating a star-studded Ghana side in the semi-finals to book a meeting with tournament favourites Ivory Coast.

Jubilation has swept over the squad and the nation as a whole but playing in Libreville holds an enormous amount of added significance as it is where one of their most horrific tragedies took place 19 years ago.

On Monday, April 28 1993, a plane carrying 30 people including 18 members of the Zambia team plummeted into the sea off the coast of Gabon.

The military craft, which was used in order to cut down on expenses, took off and reached an altitude of 6,000ft before witnesses heard an explosion. It crashed into the ocean 10 kilometres away from the run-way, killing all on board.

Despite losing the whole squad with the exception of three European-based players who had planned to fly directly to Dakar, one of which was former African Football of the Year Kalusha Bwalya, the following months saw the team rebuilt from scratch and continue their pursuit of a place at USA 1994.

With the help of Danish coach Roald Poulsen and Scot Ian Porterfield, who had recently left his post as Chelsea manager, they gelled astonishingly well for a group who had barely played together and after wins against Morocco and Senegal, went into the final fixture in Casablanca on top of their group.

Avoiding defeat would have seen one of the most miraculous World Cup qualifications in history, but they suffered a heartbreaking loss by a single goal.

Renard (centre) alongside Kalusha (second left) near the site of the crash this week

This evening, they are pitted against the heavyweight of the continent. A glance down the Ivory Coast team sheet, which features names such as Drogba, Toure, Kalou and Tiote, explains the size of the test facing manager Herve Renard.

The Frenchman is finally receiving the recognition he deserves during his second stint in the job and has been touted for a number of other positions in recent days, but remains focused on the task at hand.

We were able to go to the final because of the team spirit and mental strength,” Renard told the Times of Zambia, “The only way to win the 2012 AFCON, is to be mentally strong and not to be scared to face anybody.

“We have not qualified for the final just to lose it. In the final there is only one winner and we want to be winners. You play one final to win the final and not to participate.”

The squad and management team travelled to a beach close to the site on Friday and laid flowers in honour of the dead.

“It is no coincidence that we are here today. We have worked hard as a team and through a collective effort involving many people however; I am convinced that our dearly departed brothers that lost their lives here 19 years ago have lent a helping hand,” Bwalya said during the visit.

“They are shining down on us from heaven as we take part as finalists in this tournament. We pray that their souls will forever rest in Peace and that God give us the strength and the courage to fulfill our dreams and theirs. ”

Watch this short documentary on Zambia’s 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign:

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Ben Blake

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