Loyalty, Legends, & the power of Libreville

7 Aug

Loyalty, Legends, & the power of Libreville
I have pledged my allegiance to several African teams over the years. As a younger man, I was fascinated by the strength and energy of Cameroon at the World Cup in ’98 – any team nicknamed the Indomitable anything ought to be taken seriously, but the Indomitable Lions, phwoah! Then it was Nigeria, the elegance of Kanu and Okocha endearing the powerhouses of West Africa to many.
After travelling in North Africa, I developed affection for Egypt, a different animal altogether, but with mavericks like Hossam Ghaly and Ahmed Hossam Mido alongside iconic figures such as Mohamed Aboutrika, a hugely successful nation.
Then I was introduced to Kalusha Bwayla.
Kalusha is a figure synonymous with Zambian football, but one who is no longer particularly revered outside of sub-Saharan Africa. He was the star player of the much heralded national side of the early nineties. As a young attacker he scored a hat trick in a 4-0 rout of Italy at the Olympics – a match still regarded as one of, if not the, most impressive performance by an African team against European opposition.
Named African footballer of the year in ’88, and forging a successful career in Belgium and Holland, Bwayla was the talismanic leader of the Zambian team that boarded a flight to the Cote d’Ivoire on the 27th April 1993. The team were set to take on Senegal, a clash in an immensely promising World Cup qualifying campaign.
Nobody on board survived the crash. Initial reports suggested a faulty plane, a tired pilot, another avoidable tragedy. More sinister rumours persist, as does the sentiment within Zambia that the day the ‘Dream Team’ of the early nineties perished in the dark Atlantic off the Gabonese coast, Zambian football changed forever.
Kalusha survived, he wasn’t on the flight, intending instead to travel from the Netherlands separately. In the following years he inspired the rebuilding of the national side, a near lifelong pledge which has continued beyond his playing career, in posts at FIFA, and as the current president of the Zambian FA. Members of the current team are united in commending the infrastructure and focus of the football association. It has brought them where they are – that, and the shadow of the ‘Dream Team’.
And so, to Wednesday, a semi-final with the much fancied Black Stars of Ghana in Bata. The prize:  a spot in Sunday’s Libreville final.
Ghana were impressive, Ghana were fierce, Ghana were solid, they dominated possession, and dictated the rhythm and tempo of the game as expected. But Ghana faded and diminished; a midfield lacking its characteristic ‘bite’, a weary striker not running the line, and a feeble penalty, a decisive early blow. Hulking characters, European stars cast aside, as the Zambians, men visibly smaller in stature than their opposites, grew, and grew.
On 78 minutes, substitute Emmanuel Mayuka of Young Boys Berne collected the ball, pivoted, paused, and caressed it into the net, off the post, fizzing past the desperate dive of Kwarasey. It was a finish worthy of Kalusha himself, and one which sent Zambia into the Libreville final.
By the final whistle, the emotion had become unbearable. The game’s end brought a release of tension, and inevitably, of tears. For Ghana, particularly observed in footage of a desolate Jonathan Mensah, there was the mourning of an opportunity lost. For Zambia, on the other hand, thoughts turned to the 18 players who perished in the sea, but far from mourning, it was a glace towards the opportunity Sunday presents to honour their memory.
The final against Cote d’Ivoire will be a truly special occasion. On Friday the Zambian team, including French coach Herve Renard, and Bwayla himself, paid their respects to their fallen countrymen. Images of the squad laying flowers along the beach presented an incredibly unified picture, and indeed, echoes of the tragedy with resound in Libreville.
I, for one, will be firmly behind the chipolopolo.
Ed Dove

@Eddydove

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