"The accountant sounded strange, though. He asked, 'How are you, Kalusha?' I said I was fine. 'How are you feeling?' he asked. I said I was fine. 'Nothing wrong?' Nothing. He kept going along like this, and I didn't know what was happening. He couldn't tell me the bad news. Finally, he said I would have to delay my trip. 'Why is that?' I asked. He said the boys on the team didn't arrive in the Ivory Coast, where they were supposed to spend last night. 'Didn't arrive?' I asked. 'How is that possible?' He said there was something with the plane. 'Something with the plane?' I asked. He said they had confirmed reports that the plane had crashed and everyone was dead.
"I couldn't believe it. I said this couldn't be true. But then I turned on BBC and CNN, and there it was. The plane had crashed. Everyone was dead."
Everyone dead. Kalusha, the team's star forward, was spared because he was in Holland, and two other players were also supposed to fly in from Europe, but everyone else selected to play against Senegal in Dakar in the opening game of second-round qualifying for the World Cup perished. The depth of the tragedy was almost unimaginable. Making an analogy to a similar accident in America is impossible. The death of the entire U.S. Olympic hockey team? The death of the entire basketball Dream Team? This, hard to believe, was an even deeper loss. This was the disappearance of a country's biggest national treasure.
Soccer, football, is far and away the sport of Zambia, a landlocked country the size of Texas, located in the south of the continent. Turn a corner in Lusaka and you see a game. The ball might be made of paper and rope, the goals designated by sticks or rocks, the players in bare feet, but the game is everywhere. The British brought soccer with them when the country was a colony known as Northern Rhodesia, and along with language and tradition, soccer has remained, long after the British were ousted. In a poor country it is virtually the only team game. Who has the money even for the sneakers and equipment of basketball? Soccer is the game that all boys play, a basic component of their upbringing, even more basic than baseball in the U.S., which must battle for attention against the computer games and swimming pools and round-the-clock television of an affluent society. There is no battle in Zambia.
"You play...everybody plays the same way as a boy," Aggrey Chiyangi, a fullback on the new Zambian team, says. "Someone makes the ball, which lasts two or three days, depending on how long you play each day. If you are good, you make a team somewhere and play with a real ball. All with bare feet. I think I was in grade seven when I received my first pair of boots. I remember the first time I ever played with them, I took them off at halftime. They seemed so heavy to me. I could not move."
This Zambian national team was the distillation, the end result, of all of that soccer. It was not some put-together outfit for a wide-eyed shot at notoriety. It was a veteran team, mostly players in their late 20's and early 30's, players who had performed together for five and six and seven years. Six of them were on the squad that shocked Italy 4-0 and finished tied for fifth in the 1988 Olympics, the brightest moment in Zambian soccer history. That was when the players were kids, unknowns. They had experience now. This team, the winner of its earlier World Cup qualifying round, was favored to reach the final Cup tournament next year, in the U.S.
For a country in which malaria and cholera are everyday worries, a country where capitalism and democracy have emerged only in the past two years after the 27 years of socialism under Kenneth Kaunda, which followed independence in 1964, a country with virtually no industry except a string of copper mines in the north, this team was a statement to the outside world: See what we can do? This is our potential. No country from this far south on the continent had ever qualified for the final Cup round. This would be the first. This was the team that would separate Zambia from Zimbabwe and Namibia and Angola and Madagascar and Uganda and all the rest of the countries that always seem to be confused in the cluttered minds of the West.
This was the team that died.
"I was supposed to go with them," Goliath Mungonge, a 30-year-old sportswriter for the Zambia Daily Mail, says. "I had an argument with my wife because she didn't want me to go. We have a young son, and she told me I already had been to Senegal once, so I didn't have to go. I didn't care. I still was going. I even had packed my clothes. The problem was that they were scheduled to leave at four in the morning. I had trouble getting money, no banks open at that time. As it turned out, the plane was eight hours late in leaving—it didn't go until around noon—and I would have had time to get the money. But I didn't know that."
The 20-year-old Canadian-built plane was a Zambian military transport that had been refurbished three years before. The team often used military planes, as recently as a day earlier to return from a game on the island nation of Mauritius, 1,900 miles away. Commercial airline travel is expensive in Africa because there are few direct routes between cities. As with everything else in Zambia, a country that has no professional soccer simply because professional soccer would be too expensive, the use of that plane was an economy measure.