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JOY, SORROW AS ZAMBIA RETURN TO HONOUR CRASH VICTIMS

The current players, some without shoes, walked down the nondescript stretch of sand in Libreville not far from where a Zambian military plane crashed into…

The current players, some without shoes, walked down the nondescript stretch of sand in Libreville not far from where a Zambian military plane crashed into the ocean soon after takeoff in 1993, killing 25 players and officials on board as well as five crew.

It robbed the country of one of its best teams and a group favored to win the following year’s African Nations Cup.

This squad walked silently at first as players held their flowers, some too young to remember the disaster. Then players started singing as they approached the water and laid their flowers on the edge of the surf. Some waded in knee-deep. They huddled to pray for Zambia’s previous soccer stars.

At the head of the 22 players Thursday was Kalusha Bwalya, probably Zambia’s greatest player and a member of the ’93 team who escaped the accident because he played for a club in Europe and was to meet the rest of the squad for a World Cup qualifier at their final destination: Dakar, Senegal.

Bwalya’s teammates never made it. Zambia and Bwalya returned to the Gabonese capital for the first time since the tragedy. The Zambians will be in the African Cup final for the third time. And they’ve returned to try and finally win it in the city where Zambia suffered its lowest, saddest soccer moment.

Zambia made the ’94 final with a makeshift squad that was inspired by Bwalya and the tragedy, only to lose to Nigeria.

The team has surprised many again by making the final, and a victory in Libreville this weekend would undoubtedly be dedicated to the 18 players and seven federation officials who died a few miles from the stadium.

“It’s been a long journey,” Bwalya said, remembering his late teammates as the current players stood behind him, some ankle-deep in the ocean. “I’m just pleased that God has given me enough days to see this day.”

Some of the players, dressed in their team tracksuits, took photos of the beach. Others just looked out to sea.

Captain Christopher Katongo, the joint-leading goalscorer in this year’s African Cup, led them in prayer as they formed a tight huddle.

“It’s no coincidence that we are here today,” Bwalya, now the Zambia Football Association president, said as he read from a short speech he prepared. “We’ve worked hard as a team. In 1993 the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) came here to fulfill a promise. They did not succeed and instead gave up their lives in a bid to bring glory to our country.

“It’s the same cause that brings us here today, the only difference is that we are alive and our former teammates are no longer here.  Their dreams are our dreams.”

On Sunday, they will try to honor them again by beating pre-tournament  favorite Ivory Coast, Africa’s top-ranked team, for Zambia’s first continental title.

The site for the small, informal ceremony was chosen as the part of the beach the plane flew over 19 years ago before plunging into the water 500 yards out to suddenly and tragically snatch away nearly an entire squad.

Zambia coach Herve Renard said his team had talked in its pre-tournament training camp about traveling to the Gabonese capital to honor the memories of their compatriots.

“We wanted absolutely to come back to Gabon 19 years after the tragedy. We are there,” Renard said as the squad arrived from Bata for Sunday’s final against Ivory Coast. “Now the best thing to honor their memories is to win the final and to make all the country happy.”

Zambia, tied for 71st in the FIFA rankings, is an underdog against No. 18 Ivory Coast in the final. After beating No. 26 Ghana 1-0 in Wednesday’s semifinal, Renard’s players could be inspired to another upset by strong emotional ties to Libreville.

“We are not the favorite one more time,” Renard said, “but it will be very difficult to beat us. … We know we are playing against a very good team, a strong team, but sometimes football is psychology, the mental state, and our mental state is very high.”

While players arrived in high spirits, smiling and posing for photographs with local dancers as they emerged from the terminal, there was to be a chance for poignant reflection later Thursday when the squad was to visit a site on the coast near the crash area.

“There is not one game in Zambia without talk of the memory of the team of 1993,” Renard said. “I heard it was maybe the best team Zambia ever had. It will be a very good moment. Before the African Cup we were in camp in Johannesburg talking about the only possibility to go back to Gabon was the final. Not before. That means it’s fantastic to be there.”

The French coach also said his lucky white shirt, which he has worn for every one of Zambia’s games at this tournament, would be ready for Ivory Coast.

“I just have to make the laundry and it will be ready for Sunday,” he said.

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