This month marks the 30th anniversary of the tragic plane crash which took the lives of 30 Zambian football players and staff. Having briefly stopped in Gabon to refuel on their way to Senegal, the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after take-off. There were no survivors. The only Chipolopolo players to avoid this tragic incident were those who were playing abroad.
One of those was Kalusha Bwalya. The Zambian striker would make 100 appearances for the country, scoring an impressive 50 goals (depending on who you ask). By 1993 the player was part of PSV Eindhoven, but he had moved to Europe back in 1986. Bwalya left his native Zambia for the Venice of the North, joining the green and black half of Brugge. After a season or two to acclimatise to European football, the man nicknamed King Kalu began to show his class at Cercle. During the 1987/88 season he scored 13 goals in 34 league games, before following that up with 12 in 29 the next season. His performances in Belgium and back in African international football earned him the 1988 African footballer of the year award. This was no doubt helped by his hat-trick at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul as Zambia took Italy apart.
His 1988/89 performances sparked the interest of PSV, who brought the striker across the border. Bwalya left Cercle with 32 goals in 112 games. During his time in the Netherlands the forward won two titles and scored 28 goals in 127 games. It was being in the Netherlands that meant he was not on the plane on the 27th of April. Bwalya had a direct flight from the country to Senegal and was scheduled to meet the rest of the team there. Tragically, they never made it.
In 1996 he moved on from Holland, venturing across the Atlantic to join Mexican giants CF America. This had come after the striker had finished top scorer at the 1996 AFCON in South Africa. Zambia, despite losing their squad to the air accident, had shown incredible resilience to remain a force in African football. In 1994 they finished runners up, while in 1996 they were one of the most entertaining teams at the tournament, picking up the bronze medal. Bwalya was a key part of this success, scoring a hat-trick against Sierra Leone during the group stages.
In 2012, after the forward had retired, the AFCON took place in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Bwalya was now the President of the Zambian football association, and was there when the entire squad visited the site of the 1993 crash. As many know, Chipolopolo went on to shock the continent as they won the tournament, a fitting tribute to those who had lost their lives 19 years prior.
The team of 1993 were special, with many Zambian’s predicting that had they survived, they would have won an AFCON title. However, Bwalya did finally get to put his hands on the trophy during the 2012 celebrations.