Zambia celebrated winning the Africa Cup of Nations in a script that could have been ghost-written by the waterborne spirits of the ill-fated team that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gabon in 1993.
The team’s narrative tore apart carefully planned stratagems and questioned the wisdom of the bookmakers.
The 8-7 penalty victory over an Ivorian team with a couple of high-end players was left to chance — yes, penalties are a bit like the Lotto — in Gabon, the co-host with Equatorial Guinea.
“They found the strength, I don’t know where,” the team’s French coach, Hervé Renard, told reporters. “There is something written somewhere. It just felt right, but it was not because of me.”
Auxilio Lacouture, a character in the novel Amulet, written by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, said: “The truth is our history is full of encounters that never occurred … We had what we had.”
If we read that passage expansively, we could say the same about certain episodes in African football. Encounters that should have taken place never did; those that should not have, did. In this place, where dreams are holed up inside nightmares, where fate makes a mockery of planning, one encounters tragedy and chance happenings.
Just two examples: it is 1993 and about 30 Zambian players and officials are in a ramshackle military aeroplane on their way to face Senegal (the team Zambia beat in their first match of this year’s tournament) for an Afcon qualifying match. The aeroplane stops in Libreville, Gabon, to refuel. Soon after take-off the plane explodes, plunging into the Atlantic. No one survives.
The dead include star goalkeeper Efford David Chabala, defensive midfielder Derby Makinka, striker Kelvin Mutale and attacking midfielder Wisdom Chansa. They were the core of the team that impressed at 1988’s Seoul Olympics, the unknown youngsters defeating Italy 4-0 to reach the tournament’s quarterfinals.
The survivors would regroup around captain and talisman Kalusha Bwalya (now chair of the Zambian Football Association) and reach the Afcon finals in 1994, which they lost to Nigeria.
If the aeroplane had not been faulty and the players had avoided death, would they have won the trophy this year? Of course, it is impossible to tell. The way the players perished, some burnt beyond recognition, meant the final in Libreville was not just another match. In a strange way it was like fate going on a date with history, on which the debts owed to the departed had to be repaid. It is, I guess, what Renard was talking about when he said: “They found the strength, I don’t know where.”
Next example: It is 1996 and South Africa has been selected to host the Africa Cup of Nations after the Confederation of African Football takes it away from bungling Kenya.
Nigeria is under the murderous rule of soldier-president General Sani Abacha. His government has just executed writer Ken Saro Wiwa for his efforts to stop the pollution of his land. Nelson Mandela is riled at the cruel and undiplomatic act.
Out of pique, Abacha — like the rich, spoilt kid on the pitch who takes away his ball when an opponent tackles him — withdraws Nigeria from the Africa Cup of Nations. Abacha wants to teach Mandela a lesson: Nigeria is his plaything and no one will tell him what to do.
Nigeria, the defending champions, have accomplished players in their team. As a result of the diplomatic standoff, one of the best Nigerian sides ever produced cannot make it to the finals. The hosts, South Africa, win the cup. It is possible that Bafana — as hosts and new boys with a point to prove to the world — could still have won it even if Nigeria had been there. But a question lingers: What if Nigeria had defended their trophy?
Africa has many more such scenarios. As Lacouture would probably say: “We had what we had.” In the case of Zambia, what we had was tragic and yet, 17 years later, it has acquired a ghostly symmetry and a terrible beauty.