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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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You start with the graves. You have to start with the graves. You stand in the middle of the arid African landscape on a warm afternoon, surrounded by the 30 mounds of earth, not knowing where to look first. The dust blows into your face. The sun beats onto your head. You try to catalog all of the feelings, try to capture the sight and the emotions in words, but how can you do that? You stand and mostly you gape.

"This was the goaltender," a security guard says. "Efford Chabala. Oh, Chabala, he was very good. Very, very good."

You stare at the black-and-white picture of Chabala that is attached to a thin wooden stick behind one of the mounds. A head shot. You read the printing underneath the picture, his name and the fact that he lived from 1960 to 1993 and played for the Mufulira Wanderers and for Zambia. You squint to read the smaller writing, maybe from a half-dozen hands, messages that have been scribbled in pencil or ballpoint pen, messages of condolence, messages of farewell. "You have left us alone," one of them says. "What are we to do now?"

You look at all the pictures, one picture behind each of the 30 mounds. Many of the black faces are so young, faces that could be from a yearbook, from a college football program on a Saturday afternoon, 18 soccer players and then the coaches and the trainer and then the officials of the Zambia national team and then the crew of the de Havilland DHC-5 Buffalo airplane that dropped into the Atlantic Ocean just before midnight on April 27 off the coast of the tiny African country of Gabon. How can this be? All these people?

The dust and sun have turned the edges of the pictures a faded brown in five months' time. Everything seems faded. The remnants of burial wreaths cover each of the graves, the colors of the satin ribbons faded, the real flowers long gone, the artificial flowers also faded. Plastic sheets have been laid over some of the graves, helping to keep the presentations intact. Cinder blocks have been set upon the sheets to keep them in place. The cinder blocks are chipped and broken, the plastic colored brown, again from the dust. Everything is brown.

"There is going to be a memorial here." the security guard says. "Something permanent. There will be grass and terraces and stone. But we have to wait until the rains come at the end of November, when the ground is soft, to begin."

There is no rain now. Nothing close. The guard says that for three months there was little security, and children would come here and play among the graves. They would take the flowers, climb on the mounds, deface the pictures. They would play soccer right here, play soccer in their bare feet, children as young as four and five years old, playing with a ball made from newspapers crammed tightly inside a paper or plastic bag, the way all children learn how to play soccer in Zambia. This could not continue. That is why there is more security now.

"This is sacred ground," the guard says. "These are our national heroes."

You stand on this desolate and memorable sacred ground, no more than a few hundred yards from Independence Stadium, the biggest stadium in the country, a ramshackle structure on the outskirts of the capital, Lusaka, that seats 30,000 spectators and resembles a tired minor league baseball park. You are quietly overwhelmed. How do you describe all that has happened, the death of this one team, followed by the rise of a new, replacement team that has done so much more than anyone expected, that has brought pride and hope to an impoverished country where hope is rationed in only the smallest doses? How do you combine the happiest happy this country has ever known with the saddest sad it has ever known, everything played out against a backdrop of the miseries of modern sub-Saharan Africa? What do you do? A Zambian television broadcaster, Dennis Liwewe, has said, "From the ashes of disaster, our soccer program is headed for glory, glory hallelujah." You start with the ashes.

"I was going out for a run," Kalusha Bwalya says. "It was around noon. I was all dressed for running. The phone rang. Since I was playing in Holland, the plan was for me to fly down to Senegal the next day from Amsterdam to join the national team. The caller was the accountant from our football association in Lusaka. This was different, since usually the secretary from the association calls me, but I figured the call had to do with my trip.

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