Many agree that Zambia is a sleeping giant of African football. The Southern African nation has the potential to achieve more than what they have currently achieved in world football. Zambians know the potential possessed by their hardworking players and at one stage, the whole world almost witnessed their Golden Generation in full force. The world was robbed of some of the most talented, blessed and gifted footballers when the whole Zambian national football team perished in Gabonese skies.
One fateful night on the 27th of April 1993, the plane that the Zambian team was travelling on crashed into the Atlantic Ocean of Gabon. The Zambian team had some of the country’s best players of all time on that plane. Many felt that the team would have gone to do amazing things at the highest possible level if the crash had not happened. Those who lost their lives on that night included national heroes such as Efford Chabala, Eston Mulenga, Wisdom Chansa and Kelvin Mutale. The cream of Zambian football was lost and gone forever.
The dreams, hopes and inspirations of the whole nation perished as well. The country was down and their heroes were gone. All of them were gone except for one special player, Kalusha Bwalya. Born in August 1963, the legendary midfielder was already 30 years old when he lost his teammates, coaches and the whole administration team. Bwalya who did not travel with the team when the plane crashed, was left with what most football pundits would call an impossible task, that of leading a newly assembled team.
He went on to lead a team under pressure to reach the same heights as those who came before them. Thoughts of the players who died on national duty must have been on their minds every time they stepped into the field. What seemed as a hard thing to deal with, must have motivated the new national team players to do their best for the nation. A year later, Zambia went to the 1994 AFCON in Tunisia. Bwalya and his young teammates showed great bravery as they navigated their way to the finals, only to lose 2-1 against Nigeria in what was a memorable encounter.
The team also finished in 3rd place at the 1996 AFCON on the South African soil, with Bwalya winning the Golden Boot Award. The young team was doing their best to revive the golden days, as they had defeated two African powerhouses Senegal and Morocco during the 1994 World Cup Qualifiers, two years earlier.
Bwalya featured in 147 matches for the senior national team and scored 100 goals in the colours of the Zambian national team. From 1983 to 2004, Zambians knew that they had a hero to call upon every time the chips were down. Bwalya had the ability to produce magic when least expected. During a 2006 World Cup Qualifiers match against Liberia, he came off the bench to score a remarkable free-kick. After retirement, he was not lost to football as he had a brief spell as the national team coach.
He later went on to serve two terms as Zambian Football Association President from 2008 until 2012. It was during this period that the country lifted their maiden AFCON title in 2012 against all odds. But it’s not only Zambians who consider the former PSV Eindhoven as a great African. The 1988 African Player of the Year is regarded as a living legend in Europe, Africa and North America where he left a lasting impression during his long and successful career.
Bwalya started his European career in Belgium with Cercle Brugge where he became the club’s leading goal scorer. His consistent performance, won him a move to the Eredivisie, where he continued to stand head and shoulders above the rest in the PSV Eindhoven team that included greats such as Romario, Eric Gerets and Hans Van Breukelen. Bwalya was the star of the team when they won the league in 1990/91 and 1991/92 under Sir Bobby Robson.
As he reached the twilight of his career, he played in Mexico, an experience he described as the best time of his life. For many years, Bwalya has been at the forefront of African football, he has given his all to the game whether as an administrator, coach or player. He was once nominated for the prestigious FIFA World Player of the Year award, there is no denying that he is a legend, and giant that stood tall against the strongest winds.
Zambian football might not have reached the heights we all know they are capable of reaching, but we can all agree that Bwalya has done all he can to awaken Zambian football.