Wherever those people went, they were playing for their families.
These are the words of Joyce Chabala given in an interview with the BBC on April 27th 2013, on the 20th anniversary of the plane crash that claimed the life of the entire Zambian national football team.
Joyce’s husband was David Efford Chabala, the country’s first choice goalkeeper. He was among the 25 passengers and five crew members who were killed when their De Havilland Canada DHC-5D crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about half a kilometre off the coast of Gabon.
The Zambian squad were en route to a 1994 World Cup qualifier in Senegal when the tragedy occurred. The flight left Lusaka and made its first refuelling stop in Brazzaville, Congo, where engine problems were noted, yet the flight resumed towards its second stopover in Libreville. After refuelling in the Gabonese capital, the plane departed bound for a final stop in the Ivory Coast, but just minutes after take-off the left engine caught fire. The pilot wrongly switched off the right engine leaving the DHC-5D without the power needed to keep it airborne during the climb out of Libreville. The subsequent crash killed all on board.
The tragedy robbed Zambia of the majority of a promising generation of players who were amongst the favourites for the 1993 Africa Cup of Nations and were attempting to qualify for their ever first World Cup finals appearance in the USA the following year.
A Gabonese government investigation released in 2003, ten years after the disaster, concluded a combination of a faulty warning light and pilot error caused by fatigue were responsible. The Zambian authorities are still to publish any of their own findings.
Relatives of the victims campaigned tirelessly in the intervening 20 years for a full Zambian report into the accident and despite receiving financial compensation from the State in 2002, they remain unhappy at the lack of answers as to why the plane was ever allowed to leave Lusaka. The De Havilland, registered as AF-319, had been out of service for five months prior to its ill-fated flight and during final checks, several engine defects were identified.
Eighteen players, four members of the coaching staff and the FAZ president lost their lives in the crash. The 30 victims were flown home together for a state burial and are interred alongside each other in an area called Heroes’ Acre just outside the Independence Stadium in Lusaka where the emotionally charged memorial service took place to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the disaster.
Amongst those who perished was Godfrey Chitalu, who at the time of the crash was Head Coach of the Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets). Chitalu is considered to be the greatest Zambian footballer of all time having been voted Player of the Year on five occasions. He also still holds the national team goal scoring record having netted 78 times in 108 appearances.
Two players who should also have been on board the doomed flight were national team captain Kalusha Bwalya and midfielder Charles Musonda. Both were fortunately absent thanks to different circumstances. Musonda, who played for Belgian side Anderlecht at the time, was injured and Bwalya, who was also based in Europe with PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, had made separate travel arrangements for the trip to Senegal. In the aftermath of the tragedy the two men would be crucial in the national squad rebirth and rebuilding process. The Zambians hastily put together a new team for the Africa Cup of Nations held in Tunisia in early 1994.
The Zambian Player who perished:
- David Chabala
- John Soko
- Whiteson Changwe
- Robert Watiyakeni
- Eston Mulenga
- Derby Makinka
- Moses Chikwalakwala
- Wisdom Mumba Chansa
- Kelvin Mutale
- Timothy Mwitwa
- Numba Mwila
- Richard Mwanza
- Samuel Chomba
- Moses Masuwa
- Kenan Simambe
- Godfrey Kangwa
- Winter Mumba
- Patrick Banda