Zambian players pay respects to 1993 plane crash victims

Zambia national team players pay their respects close to the scene of the 1993 plane crash that killed 18 of their predecessors, and 30 people in all Desmond Katongo

Gabon is a country of both heart-wrenching tragedy and unbridled joy for many Zambians, but whatever the emotion it will never be forgotten by fans of the national team.

Twenty-five years on, Chipolopolo players returned to the scene of both their greatest triumph and their darkest hour on Wednesday as they went to pay their respects close to the scene of the horrific plane crash in 1993 that killed 18 of their national team predecessors, and 30 people in all.

It was a loss of life that was hard to fathom and an emotional moment for the Class of 2018, many of whom were either young toddlers or not even born at the time.

The players died when the Zambian Air Force DHC-5 Buffalo transport aircraft that was to carry them to a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Senegal crashed on take-off some 500 metres off the coast of the Gabon capital Libreville.

It took 10 years for an official report into the crash to be made public, which claimed the pilots switched off the wrong engine after a fire and, suddenly without power on both sides of the aircraft, it plunged into the sea.

Players took a moment to reflect on that needless loss of life on a beach in Libreville on Wednesday, a poignant moment for a new generation of Zambian footballers who aspire to regain recent glories.

Because Libreville was also, ironically, the scene of the country's greatest football triumph as Zambia won the 2012 African Nations Cup in the city after the Herve Renard-coached side claimed a most unlikely championship win.

Nobody had given them much chance going into the competition, but perhaps motivated by the tragedy two decades earlier, they clawed their way to the title, beating a powerful Ivory Coast side on penalties in the final following a 0-0 draw.

It is hard to imagine such contrasting emotions for a nation on foreign soil, but for whatever joy there may be in Gabon, there will always be a deeper sorrow.

The story of how Zambia managed to quickly rebuild their national side after the crash is almost the stuff of legend. 

Their star player Kalusha Bwalya, who was not on the plane as he was to travel directly from the Netherlands, where he was playing for PSV Eindhoven, to Senegal, inspired them to the final of the 1994 Nations Cup in Tunisia.

It was a most remarkable tale of a side completely rebuilt and what they may have lacked in terms of quality from their deceased compatriots, they made up for in spirit, guts and determination.

They managed to take the lead in the decider through Elijah Litana, but Nigeria, who had recently excelled at the World Cup in the United States, proved too strong as an Emmanuel Amunike double saw the Super Eagles lift the trophy.

Zambia finished third in South Africa in the next Nations Cup, but then generally faded from contention for the major honour until their surprise triumph in 2012.

Their national team is now going through another rebirth with an infusion of young talent under Belgian coach Sven Vandenbroeck.

And there have been promising signs of late, including on Tuesday when Orlando Pirates forward Justin Shonga swept home a winner in Libreville against Gabon to bring a smile to many Zambian faces.

It was a sweet moment as they contemplate the 25 years since they lost their compatriots in the rough seas off the coast of this Central African nation that will also be a massive part of their history.