April 27, 2023

Tragedy Strikes Zambia’s National Soccer Team

Tragedy Strikes Zambia’s National Soccer Team

April 27, 1993. An airplane carrying the Zambian national soccer team crashes into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all thirty people on board.


Cold Open

It’s September 1988.

A soccer match is being played at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea between tournament favorites Italy and the central African nation of Zambia. Despite being the underdogs, Zambia have found themselves one goal ahead. But victory is far from certain.

Zambian winger Kalusha Bwalya takes advantage of a break in play to glance up at the scoreboard. There’s 35 minutes left on the clock - plenty of time for Italy to equalize and reverse what would be the biggest upset of this year’s Games. Kalusha knows his team will probably need to score at least one more goal to secure victory. So he turns his eyes back to the field as play resumes.

Zambian keeper clears his goal line with a long upfield kick.

A Zambian forward receives the ball. He turns and dribbles toward the goal. But he can't get far... because an Italian defender recklessly slides in, taking out the Zambian player.

The referee blows his whistle and awards a free-kick to Zambia, just outside Italy’s penalty area.

Kalusha runs over to the ball. There’s no arguing over who’s taking this free-kick. Kalusha is Zambia’s captain and star player. He is renowned for his formidable left foot and flawless technique.

So Kalusha inhales and exhales slowly, trying to calm his nerves. He stands over the ball and eyes the goal. The angle is extremely tight for a free kick. But Kalusha notices that the goalkeeper has left a small gap undefended to his right-hand side. The Zambian captain narrows his eyes… and kicks the ball perfectly.

It gracefully bends around the wall of defenders and nestles into the bottom corner of the net.

As the Zambian players swarm around their captain, Kalusha turns toward the bleachers and raises a fist in the direction of the Zambian fans, who respond with an eruption of deafening noise, elated that their team is on the path to a historic victory.

Zambia will go on to defeat Italy by four goals to nothing, with Kalusha scoring three of them. It will become one of the nation’s greatest matches and will mark the dawn of a golden age in Zambian soccer. The players who beat Italy will become one of the most promising teams to emerge from Africa in a generation, and they will soon set their sights on the ultimate prize: the 1994 World Cup in the United States. But dreams of reaching international soccer’s most prestigious tournament will be snatched from Zambia’s grasp when an airplane carrying the team to a qualification match crashes into the Atlantic Ocean on April 27th, 1993.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 27th, 1993: Tragedy Strikes Zambia’s National Soccer Team.

Act One: The Brightest Lights

It’s early April 1993 in Zambia; almost five years after the victory against Italy in the 1988 Olympic Games.

At a training ground outside the nation’s capital of Lusaka, Godfrey Chitalu - the newly-appointed head coach of the Zambian men’s soccer team - stands watching his players run drills. As Godfrey analyzes his athletes from behind tinted sunglasses, one thing becomes clear to the forty-five-year-old coach: this group of players could really achieve something special.

And Godfrey ought to know; he was a player himself once and is widely regarded as the greatest goalscorer to ever don the national colors of Zambia. In the year 1972, Godfrey scored 107 times across all competitions — the most goals ever scored by a professional player in a calendar year. But despite his many accomplishments, Godfrey failed in one aspect of his otherwise glittering career: he never led his country to international glory by qualifying for a World Cup.

After retiring, Godfrey went into coaching. He spent several years managing a club in Zambia’s first division. But when the Soccer Association of Zambia offered him the role of national team head coach, Godfrey didn’t hesitate to accept. With the World Cup taking place next year in the US, this was an opportunity for Godfrey to achieve as a manager what he never could as a player.

Now, as he observes his team kicking the ball around beneath the blazing sub-Saharan sun, Godfrey’s confidence in this team only grows. This is a golden generation, and the squad is overflowing with ability. But even the strongest teams have their standout stars.

And this year, it's the 29-year-old midfielder, Kalusha Bwalya. Kalusha has already secured his place in the history books by scoring three goals to beat Italy at the 1988 Olympics. Now, he hopes to go one step further by taking Zambia to the World Cup.

But there’s one thing holding back Kalusha and the rest of the Zambian players: money. Though rich in talent, the Zambian team is in dire straits financially. The Zambian economy has been in freefall, and government funding for the national soccer team has dried up.

Godfrey was shocked last week when on their way to a match against Mauritius, the team could not afford to charter a plane and had to borrow a jet from the Zambian Air Force. That aircraft was old and rickety and had to stop several times to refuel. Crossing the Indian Ocean, the players had to wear life jackets just in case the engines cut out. By the time they landed in Mauritius, the players’ nerves were shredded.

Their financial strain is evident even at their training ground. Godfrey looks around at the shabby conditions of the facilities: the patchy turf, the rusty corrugated iron roof of the gymnasium. But he forces these concerns to the back of his mind as he blows his whistle and summons the players for a post-training huddle.

The team jogs over, and Godfrey delivers a rousing pep-talk. He reminds them that in a few days’ time, they’re playing Senegal in a World Cup qualifier. It’s one of the biggest matches of their careers. If they win, they stand a good chance of qualifying for soccer’s most prestigious tournament. If they lose, their hopes of traveling to the US next year will dwindle. The players listen intently. They all grew up watching Godfrey in his heyday, and they hang on every word the legend says.

Over the next few days, they continue to prepare for their upcoming match, until the time comes for them to journey to Senegal. On April 27th, a bus carries Godfrey and the players to the local military airfield. Godfrey steps out onto the sun-cracked tarmac and casts a skeptical gaze toward a twin-propeller transport plane. Godfrey sighs. He's grateful the plane was secured at all and hopes the bumpy journey doesn’t affect his players’ performance in the match.

Godfrey boards the plane along with eighteen members of the squad and the rest of the coaching staff. One of the few players notaboard the plane is star midfielder, Kalusha Bwalya. Kalusha plays for an elite European team, and his club commitments affect his ability to train with the Zambian national team. He’ll be flying to Senegal directly from Holland instead.

As the plane jerks into motion and they eventually hurtle upward through the clouds, Godfrey's mind turns to the game ahead. Senegal are a tough opponent — one of the best teams in Africa. To beat them, Zambia will need to be in top form. 

But Godfrey and his players will never even reach Senegal. Moments after stopping to refuel in Gabon on the west coast of Africa, their aircraft's left engine will malfunction and the pilot will lose control of the aircraft. The plane will nosedive into the Atlantic Ocean just a few hundred yards from the beach. By the time rescuers can reach the wreckage, all thirty people on board will be dead.

Act Two: A Nation in Mourning

It’s April 10th, 1994 at a soccer stadium in Tunisia; one year after the Zambian men’s soccer team’s plane crashed.

The captain of the Zambian team, Kalusha Bwalya, sits in the locker room, staring at the floor. Zambia are about to compete in the final of the 1994 African Cup of Nations — a prestigious continent-wide competition. It’s the most important match of Kalusha’s career. But the thirty-year-old is finding it hard to live in the moment. His mind is drawn back to the tragedy that occurred last April, and how the team he’s playing in today is unrecognizable from the one he was playing just last year.

Eighteen members of that squad were killed in the plane crash, along with the head coach and his coaching staff — an entire generation of Zambian soccer stars wiped out in the blink of an eye. When Kalusha heard the news, the thought that kept playing through his mind was that heshould have been on that plane, too. If it hadn’t been for his scheduling conflict, he would have been among the dead.

But as one of the few surviving team members, Kalusha instead faced the difficult task of helping to rebuild the Zambian team. In the wake of the accident, youth players were brought up through the ranks. Senior players like Kalusha, and the few others who hadn’t been on board the doomed airplane, stepped up and led by example. Slowly but surely, the new squad started to gel. But the African Cup of Nations is the team’s first big challenge.

So far, the tournament has been going well for Zambia. They’ve managed to overcome Senegal and Mali to reach the final. But today, they’re up against a Nigerian team that many consider to be the best ever fielded by an African nation.

For Kalusha, the gravity of the occasion is threatening to overwhelm him. He can feel the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders. And he can sense the presence of his dead teammates’ ghosts all around him. But Kalusha is wrenched from his reverie by the sound of his name being called. It’s the new head coach, Ian Porterfield — a gruff, plain-speaking Scotsman. Ian walks over and slaps Kalusha supportively on the back. He tells him gently to get a move on; the match is starting in five minutes. Kalusha nods and pulls on his cleats and heads out toward the field, where his teammates are waiting for him.

As he emerges from the tunnel, Kalusha gazes around at the tens of thousands of Zambian supporters chanting his name from the bleachers. A banner commemorating the fallen twenty-five players and coaches flutters above their heads. Zambia has been in mourning ever since the plane crash. A victory over Nigeria would give the nation a much-needed morale boost. But as the two teams line up, Kalusha doesn’t feel confident. The Nigerians haven’t lost a game all tournament. To emerge victorious, Kalusha and his teammates will need to pull off a miracle.

The referee blows his whistle, signaling the start of the game. Kalusha receives the ball and runs down the field. Zambia are on the attack. After just three minutes, Kalusha helps score the game’s first goal. And as he runs over to celebrate with his team, Kalusha thinks maybe destiny is smiling down on them after all.

But the Nigerians prove resilient. Soon after play resumes, Nigeria’s right-winger bears down on the Zambian goal. He cuts inside and curls a low shot past the Zambian keeper, leveling the score: 1 - 1. 

Following this, Nigeria establishes its dominance. Kalusha tries to rally his teammates, but the opposition is too strong. They launch repeated attacks against Zambia’s fraying defense, and it isn’t long before Nigeria score their second goal.

With 70 minutes on the clock, Kalusha is substituted. For the remainder of the game, he watches from the bench as his team struggles to find a second goal. After ninety minutes, the referee blows the full-time whistle, and the score is two-one to Nigeria.

Kalusha hangs his head in despair. It’s a crushing blow to have come this close only to fall. And today’s game will turn out to be the last major final Kalusha ever plays in. He will retire from professional soccer six years later. As for Zambia, they will have to wait almost two decades before they get another chance at winning on the international stage.

Act Three: Champions of Africa

It’s a warm, muggy night on February 12th, 2012 in Libreville, Gabon; nineteen years after the plane crash that killed eighteen members of the Zambian soccer team.

Zambia’s goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene bounces up and down on his goal line. He narrows his eyes with concentration as Gervinho, one of the Ivory Coast’s star players, steps up to take a penalty kick.

For the second time in twenty years, Zambia has reached the final of the African Cup of Nations. Their opponents, the Ivory Coast, are favorites to win the competition, having breezed through the tournament without conceding a single goal. But Kennedy and his Zambian teammates are playing for more than just a trophy; they are playing for the memory of their late compatriots — the players and coaching staff who died in that plane crash, a tragedy which took place just a few miles from where this game is being played in Libreville.

The Zambians’ tenacity has shown itself throughout today’s game. This Ivory Coast team consists of some of the world’s best players, but Zambia have managed to keep them at bay. The score was nil-nil after extra time. So the outcome is now to be decided on penalties.

Both teams stand along the halfway line, arms draped around each others’ shoulders. Winning this competition means a lot to both nations. But for Zambia, it means everything. Some players watch through their fingers. Others have fallen to their knees, their gaze turned heavenward; waiting, and praying.

At the referee’s whistle, Gervinho takes his penalty.

Kennedy dives the wrong way, but it doesn’t matter. The ball is struck too high, sailing over the goal and into the crowd. Gervinho walks dejectedly back to his teammates while Kennedy punches the air in triumph.

If Zambia scores their next penalty, the tournament is theirs. But up next is 22-year-old defender Stopilla Sunzu. It’s a massive amount of pressure for such a young player, and Kennedy watches with bated breath as the youngster approaches the penalty spot. A tense hush falls over the crowd, as Stoppila takes a short run-up… and blasts the ball into the goal.

Zambia have won the African Cup of Nations. Kennedy joins his teammates as they race across the pitch to celebrate with the fans, basking in the glory of their historic win. In the words of the match commentator, this team has turned the scene of their greatest tragedy into the spot of their most wonderful success — a stunning reversal nineteen years on from the terrible plane crash that robbed Zambia of a golden generation of soccer players on April 27th, 1993.


Next on History Daily. April 28th, 1967. At the height of his boxing career, Muhammad Ali refuses induction into the US Army, a choice that will turn the renowned athlete into one of the decade’s most prominent antiwar activists.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.