My wife and I had travelled to Mochudi not to look for football boots, but school shoes for our son, Paul, who was among a few students from Lentsweletau Community Junior Secondary School who were selected for senior secondary school at Molefhi Senior Secondary School.
We had just crossed the road from the late Mma Malepa’s pharmacy when a Radio Botswana (RB) Setswana news bulletin mentioned something about “Zambia, Gabon and Senegal” roused my curiosity. I did not fully comprehend what was being announced.
But my wife, who had arrived in the country two years before me and had been interacting with Batswana women in Lentsweletau village, had captured the full impact of the news: “The plane carrying the Zambian national team had crashed soon after take-off en route to Senegal. There were no survivors”. I was completely shattered.
Shattered because I knew most of the players and officials personally and, above all, I had travelled to South Korea with them for the 1988 Soul Olympic Games. Those who died included Godfrey ‘Ucar’ Chitalu, whose 107 goals in a season record remains unbeaten.
I was so overcomed, we drove straight to the Zambian High Commission in the Main Mall, where another shock awaited me.
Zambia’s former Sportsman of the Year, Footballer of the Year winner and national soccer coach, Samuel ‘Zoom’ Ndhlovu was also there. I asked him what he was doing in Botswana when he should have died with the rest of his boys?
Zoom told me he would have been on that aircraft ,but because he had differences with the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) officials. He decided to come to Botswana.
“I do not know whether I should say I am lucky, but because I had disagreement with those fellows ,I decided to come here to take up an appointment as Lobatse Extension Gunners coach,” he said then.
Indeed, God’s ways and are not our ways. How on earth could a man who was one of the highly paid and revered sportsmen find himself in Botswana looking for greener pastures?
“That’s how bad the Zambian economy has become,” said Zoom as he shook his head not in self-pity but in total disbelief that people’s lives could be sacrificed with such reckless abandon. Because Zambia Airways, the national airline, had been “killed” as unprofitable, the team had to use an old military aircraft for the long flight to West Africa.
Talk of premonitions. Signs were already there. So ‘Zoom’ and I signed the Book of Condolences at the High Commission and left.
But what did not leave me is the fact that the dead included players I saw for the last time in action in South Korea against then Asian champions, Iraqi in the opening match of 1988 Olympic Games.
The boys made everyone proud. The team became instantly popular with the Koreans. The Zambians were as usual underrated.
No one gave them a chance in their group that included former world champions Italy and West Germany. But by holding Iraqis 2-2, a team that had defeated South Koreans in the Asian Games final, the Koreans were so impressed they started backing the then ‘KK XI’.
But their most memorable encounter was against Italy. The authorities in Rome had in fact decided to suspend the entire Italian league to allow their stars to play in the Seoul Olympic Games.
Before a packed stadium in Kwangju, skipper Kalusha Bwalya played some of his best football, scoring a hat-trick as Zambia trounced Italy 4-0.
So when the Chipolopolo defeated Ivory Coast 8-7 on post-match penalties in that epic final played in Gabon to lift the AFCON trophy for the first time on February 12, it was ‘mission accomplished’ and a fitting tribute to the valiant players who perished in what must rank as one of Africa’s worst aviation disasters.
Sadly, Zoom, a graduate of the English FA coaching academy in Blackpool, who had mysteriously survived the Gabon plane crash, died soon after his return to Zambia from Botswana a few years ago. (Sila Press Agency)