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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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"If Zambia had an advantage," says Porterfield, "it was that Morocco didn't know what to expect because it never had seen this team."

The team's entrance onto the field was amazing. The day was amazing. The stands were filled, the people on the top rows able to look out and see a procession of police vehicles and cars and motorcycles coming down the road to the stadium. At the rear was the team bus. The procession drove around the outside of the stadium, paused briefly next to the graves, then entered the stadium and drove a long route around the running track. In one of the cars were President Chiluba and various state officials, who headed for the presidential box. The team bus stopped, and the team ran onto the field, headed by Kalusha, the star of both the old team and the new team. Did Morocco have a chance? A moment of silence was held for the departed players.

"It's a fact," Gwebente, the fan, says. "We Africans, we are Christian, most of us, but we also are believers in the spiritual. Morocco took a 1-0 lead in the first half, and you could see people standing, down at the end of the stadium that is near the graves. They were turned in the direction of the graves. They were shouting to the departed players, calling their names, asking for help. Where are you now that we need your help? What are you going to do about this? We need your help now. I was shouting along with everyone else. Then Kalusha scored on a direct kick and then we scored again.... I don't know about spirits. I just say what happened."

The word miracle was mentioned more than once. Zambia 2, Morocco 1. The Moroccan players openly discussed the presence of spirits in attendance, the feeling from the crowd. Had the timing of any win anywhere ever been better? One small ration of hope had suddenly been returned.

"The load has become bigger and bigger," Chiyangi, the fullback, says. "At first we were expected to do nothing, just to fill out the form. Now we are expected to win all the time."

The date is Sept. 27, a day after the Zambians have belted Senegal 4-0 at Independence Stadium before another giddy crowd. The game was no contest, a rout. The win has given them a one-point lead in their qualifying group. They have one game left, on Oct. 10 against Morocco in Casablanca. If they tie or win, they qualify for the Cup final-round tournament next year, in the U.S. If they lose, alas, they are done.

The new team is undefeated in official matches. That first win over Morocco in July was followed by a scoreless tie with Senegal a month later, and then another month of expenses-paid training in France and the Netherlands. In games to qualify for the African Nations Cup, also to be played next year, the team beat South Africa and tied Zimbabwe to reach the final round. Half of Zambia seemed to follow the team to the match in Harare, Zimbabwe, spilling into the streets after the 0-0 tie, chanting, 'Chipolopolo, yo! Chipolopolo, yo!' That is the slogan for this team. It comes from the tribal dialect Nyanja and means "strong, impervious, unbeatable." Chipolopolo, yo!

"It has been an unbelievable experience being here for all of this," Porterfield, the coach, says. "When we've played at home, it's been as if only one team was meant to win. After the tragedy and all, this team has been sort of the focal point for the entire country. I've seen some amazing things, some very good talent, raw talent. I saw a local game the other day, just kids, no shirts, no shoes on. I saw things that made you stand up. I saw a kid dribble down the side and smash one in, 35 yards off the goal, unbelievable. If you ever could put together the financing, the proper structure, the teaching in a place like this...some African country is going to come very close to winning the World Cup very soon."

The new team has been far different from the old team, the system entirely different, the personalities as well. The stress has been on teamwork, unity, more than on individual brilliance. Kalusha, 31, and striker Gibby Mbasela, who plays professionally in Germany, have been the offensive standouts. Goalkeeper James Phiri, previously untested internationally, has been a surprise. Another goaltender, the first choice, had been left off the old team at the last moment for that fatal trip to Senegal. He was so shaken by the tragedy that he quit, refusing to join the new team. Phiri has been the answer.

"Actually, I also had practiced with the other national team," he says. "There is a chance I would have played with them, would have been on the plane, except my mother died. Malaria. I was at her funeral when I heard the news of the team. All of that at once, my mother, the team, my friends. I was twisted inside, but I am all right now."

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