- (Photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
The Zambian national soccer team has been welcomed back home after a remarkable triumph in the African Cup of Nations final on Sunday, nearly 20 years after a tragic plane crash killed 18 members of its squad.
After more than matching the Ivory Coast over 120 minutes of play (including extra-time) and securing a 0-0 scoreline, Zambia managed to win the penalty shootout by an 8-7 score and lift the trophy for the very first time in its history.
It was nothing short of a fairy tale underdog story according to many, as few expected Zambia to be a top contender in this year's tournament – and even in the final, the Ivory Coast, with their team of stars competing all over Europe's best clubs, were considered the favorites. Yet, it was their captain and Chelsea FC striker Didier Drogba who missed a penalty in regular time that could have handed defeat to Zambia, making the victory seem even more like a miracle.
"I told them if we got to the final we would play in Gabon where the plane crashed. There was a special significance in that," said Zambia coach, Herve Renard.
"They found the strength. I don't know where," he added, fighting tears, the BBC reported.
"The players who were killed in the plane crash in Gabon was what was behind us and what was driving us through the tournament," Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene expressed as the team got ready to head back home after the victory, according to the BBC.
Renard and Mweeene were referancing the April 28, 1993, plane crash that killed 18 members of a Zambian squad flying to a World Cup qualifying match in Senegal. The plane crashed not far from Libreville, Gabon which, significantly, was where Sunday's African Nations Cup Final took place.
A report released in 2003, a decade after the national tragedy, revealed that a mechanical fault in the left engine brought the plane down – the pilots switched off the still functioning right engine by mistake because of a "poor indicator light bulb" causing the plane to lose all power and crash, the BBC reported.
A total of 30 people were killed as the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving no survivors.
Euphoria gripped the nation as they cheered on their returning heroes on Monday, the Times of India reported, as thousands of fans gathered at the airport to greet the triumphant Zambian squad. The crowds had been waiting for more than nine hours in anticipation of the plane touching down at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in the capital, Lusaka.
After showing off the African Cup of Nations golden trophy, the team got on a bus that toured around the city, kicking off celebrations that are expected to last all throughout the day and night.
Radio stations around the nation joined in the jubilation, playing songs celebrating Zambia's historic victory and honoring the previous generation of players that died in the plane crash.
"Our tears for the team that perished in Gabon should now be eased with the Zambia victory," go the translated lyrics to one of the many songs.