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Triumph on Sacred Ground
Leigh Montville
October 18, 1993
After the Zambian soccer team perished in a plane crash, a new team rose to bring hope to a troubled nation
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October 18, 1993

Triumph On Sacred Ground

After the Zambian soccer team perished in a plane crash, a new team rose to bring hope to a troubled nation

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The 30 coffins were shipped back from Libreville, and the drive from the Lusaka airport to the stadium, usually a 15-minute trip, took three hours as people gathered along the roads in tears. The coffins were stretched the length of the soccer field, and the stadium was left open all night for the public to pay its respects. On May 3, a third and final national day of mourning, the stadium was filled, and at least 100,000 people gathered outside as President Frederick Chiluba tearfully delivered his eulogy. HEROES LAID TO REST, the headline in the Daily Mail read. The paper reported that 130 people at the funeral fainted and two women went into labor.

"For that entire week I wasn't worth anything," Morris Gwebente, a 30-year-old mechanic, a Zambian soccer fan, says. "I didn't want to talk with anyone. I just wanted to be alone. I sat in that stadium at the memorial and wondered if I ever could watch soccer again. I thought about all those guys.... I knew them all. How could it be that I would never see them again?"

The effort to build a new team evolved in the next month. Invitations were given to 30 players from the midlands, which is the area around Lusaka, and to 30 more from the cities of the Copper Belt, to the north. Tryouts were held at both locations. Kalusha and his brother, Joel, who plays in Belgium, and a couple of others from professional teams outside Zambia were automatic choices, and a handful of other players who had been dropped from the national team earlier were strong possibilities, but the rest of the talent was young and without international experience. Freddie Mwila, a Zambian native who once played for the Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League, was asked to assemble and guide the new team. He was working as the national coach in Botswana, but how could he resist this call from his country at a time like this? He was allowed by Botswana to get out of his contract.

He knew many of the players, had known some of them since they were children in various youth leagues, but he had no idea what kind of team he could build. He made cuts and then more cuts, working his roster down to 30 players. The neighboring country of Malawi offered to play a series of three benefit matches to help in the process. The benefits, played in late May in Zambia, gave Mwila the first idea that there might be some possibilities.

"We tied the first game 1-1," he says. "Then we lost the second 1-0. The final game we won easily, 4-2. What I tried to emphasize, from the beginning, was that what has happened has happened and that we had to move ahead. We could not be the other team. Those guys were together for five, six years. They had some brilliant individual players, a brilliant style. We had to find our own style. We had to do it without emotion. We had to just play."

Help came from various sources. Money arrived, donated not only to help the families of the departed players but also to help rebuild Zambian soccer. The world soccer community was involved. Offers of expense-paid training trips were made by various countries. The offer from Denmark was accepted. Mwila felt this was the best way to remove emotion from the equation. Go to Denmark for a month.

"There was too much going on here," Mwila says. "Getting away was just what we needed. We had kids who had never traveled. Some of them were scared of color, of playing against white people. Some were scared of environment, playing away from home. We went to Denmark, played some games against sonic very good club teams, and pretty soon these kids weren't scared anymore."

For the first time, through sad circumstance, this Third World team had New World, Old World advantages. For the first time there was money. No team from Zambia had ever trained like this in a foreign country. A Danish coach, Roald Poulsen, added some strategic assistance in Denmark. The British offered the services of Ian Porterfield, a Scotsman who had been fired as coach of Chelsea in the British Premier League. Porterfield would coach through the second round of World Cup qualifying, all expenses paid. The offer was accepted, Mwila becoming an assistant. The individual skills learned barefoot in the dirt would be merged with high-level professional coaching experience from Europe.

How well would all this work? The second qualifying round began at Independence Stadium against Morocco on July 4, just as Porterfield arrived. Nobody really knew what to expect.

"I hadn't played with three quarters of the team before it was put together," Kalusha says. "I'd been in Europe while these kids were growing up. I didn't even know them."

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