Remembering the Gabon Disaster that Killed Members of Zambian Soccer Team

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Today, we remember the Zambia national football team air disaster which occurred on April 27th 1993.

On that fateful evening, a young and promising Zambian national soccer team, popularly known as the Chipolopolo, was decimated, sending shock and disbelief to soccer fans around the world.

My recollection of 1993 Zambian team is as clear as the longevity of a mugumo tree, and as tear-jerking as the feeling if losing a loved one. I loved this team!

See, I am a sworn Gor Mahia fan. However, I do recall that after winning the league in 1992, AFC Leopards, our arch-rivals, set out to represent Kenya at the 1993 African Cup of Champions Clubs. The team would be drawn to play Zambi’s Nkana Red Devils in the first round.

I was thrilled. My love for Zambia was not limited to soccer. As you would expect, my heart was with Nkana Red Devils.

Let me be clear;

See, in 1988, I remember seeing my grandfather lining up in the democratic yet infamous mlolongo-KANUesque way of voting. What also stood out for me in 1988 is watching my uncle read some newspaper cuttings, about a young Zambian national team making headlines at the Olympics. The team, led by Kalusha Bwalya, had thrashed Italy 4-0.

Of course the name Kenneth Kaunda was a constant mention in the local “Taarifa ya Habari.” He had ruled Zambia for 27 years before being voted out of office. What stood out about Kaunda was his passion for soccer; it was genuine. Other than wagging the white handkerchief, and in spite my tender age, I could tell President Kaunda ‘felt’ the game from deep in his loins.

Who can forget Zambia and all its copper anyway? Raise up your hand. Now put it down.

Back to AFC Leopards drawing to play Nkana Red Devils.
When Leopards went to Lusaka, they drew 1-1 and to qualify for the next round, all the team needed was a barren draw.

Wilberforce Mulamba, Tony Lwanga, John Busolo among others were ready for the return clash in Nairobi. However, one man would thwart the efforts of the Leopards attack force. That man was defender John Soko. He played an inspired game. I recall ‘watching the match live’ from my grandfather’s old radio, as it was broadcast by Billy Omara and NoN (Nick Okanga Naftaly). Leopards lost by a goal to nil. But the name John Soko remained etched in my mind.

A few weeks later, John Soko would be among members of the national soccer team travelling to Dakar , Senegal to play a world cup qualifier. However, about 500 meters offshore from Libreville, Gabon, the plane carrying the team crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Soko and 24 others-players and officials were among the dead.

Kalusha Bwalya survived the crash as he was not traveling with the team.