Tomorrow marks another huge karmic moment in soccer lore. The national team of Zambia
plays in the final of the African Cup of Nations. Unlikely favorites, they have squeaked by opponents with higher cachet and survived a few penalties and shots off the crossbar. They are starting to look like a team of destiny. Why? Well you may not know the story. Stories, actually.
If you aren’t familiar, the simplest thing to do is quote one of the many commemorative web sites and explain, “During the late evening of Tuesday 27 April 1993 the Zambian Air Force Buffalo DHC-5D carrying most of the Zambian national football team to a FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Senegal in Dakar caught fire and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 500 metres offshore near Libreville, Gabon.”
Call it irony. Call it fate. Almost twenty years after almost every Zambian player perished in that accident, the team is back in the final match of the ACN. The game will take place tomorrow in the same country where that plane fatefully went down, killing everyone on board, And not only will it happen in the same country, it will take place in the same city.
Soccer, like any sport, can serve to unite people. But triumph over tragedy unites them even further. There are many stories like the 1958 Manchester United plane crash in Munich and
the Hillsborough stand disaster of 1989. Any time where large numbers of people gather, there is a statistical possibility of an accident. The same holds true of people who ply frequently: the chance that they may be involved in an accident is higher.The deaths of the Zambian team are another page in this tragic book.
The thing that has me enthralled, and moved, is that Zambia is where my in-laws met and married. My wife was born there shortly after. My father-in-law, Arthur, loved soccer. He played as a young man and coached a number of years in southern California. Arthur passed away last summer, surrounded by his children and wife.I think he’d be very excited to know the Chipololo (“Copper Bullets”) play for a championship tomorrow.
This game won’t be shown on TV here. But a lot of the world will pause to watch. Zambia plays the much higher-ranked Ivory Coast and logic dictates they won’t have much of a chance. But this match reminds me of the Women’s World Cup final where the Nadeshiko of Japan upset the US Women in a penalty tie-breaker. Japan had never beaten the US in 26 tries. But then again, they had never played them in a final months after the country was flattened by a series of earthquakes and nuclear disasters, as they had gone through four months prior. Following the loss, Hope Solo reflected. “We lost to a great team, we really did, I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team.”
Tomorrow it’s David v Goliath. The humble little team trying to commemorate their fallen
No one can say but I like to think that Arthur will be watching and I know who he’ll be supporting.