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Navigating Tragedy: Zambia and the Painful Road to AFCON Glory

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In the first month of 1994, a story of awe, written in pain and dedication, was etched in African football lore. Zambia, a nation still reeling from the tragic loss of her teeming national team squad in a plane crash, produced a new talented roster that had a great run at the 19th edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON 1994). 

This is the story of the Zambian national team and how they navigated a painful road to deliver one of the most impressive runs in AFCON history.

Qualifying for AFCON

The qualification campaign ran from 14th June 1992 through 24th October 1993. Group 5 consisted of four national teams: Zambia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, where they played against each other home and away in a round-robin format.

With victories over South Africa and Mauritius and two games against Zimbabwe ending in stalemates, Zambia intriguingly won the qualification group and advanced to the finals. 

The Chipolopolo (Zambian national football team) — not paper favorites leading up to the tournament — stood rigid, holding their desire to win the prestigious AFCON trophy. 

The devastating tragedy that shook the nation

With a series of qualification matches lined up, the Zambian Air Force organized the team’s flight to Dakar. 

The aircraft departed from Libreville after refueling without much trouble. Midway into the flight, the pilot reported a fire in the left engine. With his judgment impaired by fatigue, he mistakenly turned off the right engine, resulting in the plane losing power altogether. 

And with that erroneous decision, the pilot sealed the fates of all 25 passengers and five crew members on a beach in Libreville, Gabon.

Future investigation indicated that some mechanical problems with the aircraft had played a significant role in the crash. Apparently, the pilot made the fatal error because the panel light of the faulty DHC-5 Buffalo transport aircraft was off. 

Some of Zambia’s finest were among the deceased, including Godfrey Chitalu, their coach and Zambia’s all-time leading scorer. He had recently taken over as the team’s head coach and had led the team with some victories up until the tragic plane crash.

Here are the victims of the crash:

  • David Chabala (33)
  • Richard Mwanza (33)
  • Whiteson Changwe (28)
  • John Soko (24)
  • Samuel Chomba (29)
  • Robert Watiyakeni (23)
  • Winter Mumba (Undeclared)
  • Kenan Simambe (18)
  • Derby Makinka (27)
  • Wisdom Mumba Chansa (29)
  • Eston Mulenga (31)
  • Moses Chikwalakwala (23)
  • Numba Mwila (21)
  • Godfrey Kangwa (Undeclared)
  • Timothy Mwitwa (24)
  • Kelvin Mutale (23)
  • Patrick Banda (19)
  • Moses Masuwa (21)
  • Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu (coach)
  • Alex Chola (assistant coach)

The crew members were Colonel Fenton Mhone, Lt Colonel Victor Mubanga, Lt Colonel James Sachika, Major Edward Nambote, and Corporal Thomas Sakala.

Bouncing back from the tragic loss

Following the crash, the Zambian FA hastily assembled a team to complete various qualification matches and tasked Scottish gaffer Ian Porterfield with getting these raw and green prospects to the finals in Tunisia. 

Zambian players in coffins
Source: ZamFoot

The new team was centered around PSV Eindhoven’s Kalusha Bwalya, former African Footballer of the Year 1988. Thanks to fate, he wasn’t on the flight because he took a separate plane to join the national team in Dakar. And by surviving this tragedy, he had taken on the leadership role, with a monumental point to prove while shouldering the woes of fallen comrades and the groans of a heartbroken nation.

Zambia at AFCON 1994

Chipolopolo’s silky pattern of attacking football endeared them to the fans; their distinct defensive formation made it challenging to play against. 

Zambian AFCON squad on the pitch

The Zambian national team placed in Group C with powerhouse Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. Their new team had a few known international players and a motley crew of raw talent from local clubs, now playing on the big stage, giving the new squad an underdog status.

Fuelled by the fresh memories of a colossal tragedy, the Zambian team entered the first game against Sierra Leone with unmatched intensity. Unfortunately, they couldn’t break the deadlock, and the game finished in a draw.

The second game will see them overcome in a tight contest against defending champions Ivory Coast, Kenneth Malitoli scoring in the 79th minute with his first touch of the game. 

With one win and one draw, Zambia topped Group C with 4 points and one goal scored, booking a place with Senegal in the quarterfinals. 

Nobody would have faulted them for bowing out to Senegal at this stage. But Sakala’s 38th-minute goal helped them knock the Senegalese team out of the tournament. Mali was next in line. 

Mali were tough campaigners, coming off a narrow win over Egypt in the quarterfinals. So, any fan betting on the Chipolopolo must have gone with their hearts rather than their heads. 

And it paid off. The Zambians dismantled Mali’s defense in an all-time classic performance in the Semifinal clash. The game ended 4-0, setting up a grand finale against the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

The final vs. Nigeria

The final match was played on 10th April 1994 in front of 25,000 fans at Stade El Menzah, Tunis. The event commenced with Brazilian and French Legends Pele and Michel Platini as the guests of honor, greeting the players before kickoff.  

The Chipolopolo, blazing with flair, defensive will, creative midfield play, and hot offense, wanted to bag the continental trophy against Nigeria’s red-hot Jay Jay Okocha and Rashidi Yekini. The Nigerians were favourites, but the Zambians were hoping to shock the world as the Crazy Gang did in ’88.

The dream became flesh when Elijah Litana’s thunderous header in the fourth minute of play gave Zambia the lead from a quick corner kick. But reality kicked them in the gut when Emmanuel Amunike’s headed equalizer came a few minutes later. 

Two minutes into the second half, Emmanuel Amunike completed his brace with a sumptuous strike. The Chipolopolo persisted in their pursuit of an equalizer. Zambian super forward Kenneth Malitoli, on familiar Tunisian grounds, missed a clear chance to put both teams level. More woes followed as a shot from outside the box struck the woodwork. The dream was slipping away. 

Zambia kept probing, but Nigerian goalkeeper Peter Rufai shut them out, making vital saves as the game progressed. At the end of the match, the Zambian players collapsed in despair as they watched Nigerians become African Champions.

Nigerian AFCON 1994 squad

Around the stadium and in the rest of the footballing world, there was a feeling of cosmic injustice. The stars had aligned for the Zambians to win this one, but it wasn’t their time. The final result did not follow the Hollywood script, but the performance of this Zambian team received plaudits and a litany of what-ifs. 


Despite the disappointment, the national team’s heroic performance provided hope and optimism to Zambia`s citizens. Putting things in context, this team of hastily assembled nobodies almost shocked the continent—they almost shocked the world.  Their incredible run in the 1994 African Cup of Nations and what it meant for the nation earned them a hero’s welcome. 

Zambian team on the beach of the crash 2016
Source: FourFourTwo

Destiny will smile on Zambia eighteen years later. Zambia defeated a familiar foe Ivory Coast to win the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations a few hundred meters inland from the crash site in Libreville. And without any question, the victory was dedicated to those who perished in the disaster. 

Zambia wins AFCON

The Chipolopolo’s journey in 94′ is a reminder of what is achievable when a group of talented people come together and work towards a common goal regardless of past mishaps. Although it won’t bring back the dead, this moment added credence to the widely-held belief that football is an extension of humanity.

Who wrote this?

Ebuka is a tech enthusiast, writer, and eSports guru currently working with a team of daring Africans to revolutionize the writing scene. He enjoys answering questions, brainstorming new ideas, and discussing the future of sports and esports.

Sports Writer | [email protected] | Website

Ugo is a sports enthusiast with an undying love for underdog stories.

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