Zambia tragedy inspires new generation
Outside Zambia's Independence Stadium in Lusaka stands a stone monument with a football atop it: a public memorial for a lost generation of players.
On April 27, 1993, Zambia were preparing to begin their final round of World Cup qualifying and having won their first-round group, they were one of the favourites to advance to USA '94. With a first ever appearance at the finals firmly in their sights, the Chipolopolo's 18-man squad - plus coach Godfrey Chitalu and his backroom staff - set off for their second qualifier in Senegal.
They would never return.
The plane carrying them to Dakar suffered engine failure just off the coast of Gabon and crashed into the ocean, killing all 30 passengers and crew on board. News of the tragedy reached all corners of the globe and the football world was left to mourn as some of Africa's most promising players perished. A spokesman for the Confederation of African Football (CAF) perfectly articulated the feeling in the wake of disaster when saying: "Zambian football has been tragically ruined. It has lost its elite. It is a terrible catastrophe for all the continent's football."
After the heartache of laying their dead to rest came the question of how Zambia would be able to put together a side capable of carrying on the late team's legacy. Three European-based players - Kalusha Bwalya of PSV, Charles Musonda of Anderlecht and Johnson Bwalya of Swiss club Bulle - all dodged the fate that befell their Copper Bullets team-mates and bravely continued to play a central role as the Zambian phoenix began to rise.
The new group of players, generally young and inexperienced, fought valiantly but missed out on qualification for the World Cup after defeat to rivals Morocco in the final group game. However, in one of the most remarkable underdog stories in football history, Zambia made it all the way to the African Nations Cup final the following January. Playing in the name of their fallen comrades, the side - coached by former Chelsea and Aberdeen boss Ian Porterfield - beat Ivory Coast, Senegal and Mali on their way to a showdown with Nigeria. The Super Eagles were to deny them a fairytale ending but Porterfield's team received widespread acclaim, with one writer describing their journey as the "perfect eulogy" for those whose lives were lost in the air disaster.
Eighteen years on, and Zambia are preparing for another tilt at African Nations Cup glory. Reaching the final in 1994 remains the national team's greatest football achievement but there exists a strong belief in the abilities of the current crop, particularly in the wake of their narrow quarter-final exit in 2010, when the Chipolopolo were agonisingly beaten on penalties by Nigeria.
Emmanuel Mayuka was among the successful spot-kick takers for Zambia that day and the 21-year-old has developed into his country's star player over the past two year. The Young Boys striker, who is the second highest scorer in the Swiss Super League this season, believes that the upcoming tournament represents more than just an opportunity to reach the knockout rounds for only the second time since 1996.
Zambia play their Group A matches in Equatorial Guinea, but should they progress further could face fixtures in Gabon; a run to the semi-finals would provide the opportunity to make a poignant pilgrimage to Libreville, the Gabonese capital and location of the tragic 1993 team's final departure. Though he was only two years old at the time of the air disaster, Mayuka insists the memory of the victims plays role in motivating him and his team-mates.
"The 1993 crash is not at the centre of all of our discussions but it is something that is there as part of all of us in our football history," Mayuka explains to ESPNsoccernet. "It was a terrible moment for the nation and while we have to move on, it is our responsibility to keep alive the dream of the players who passed away.
"We want to do our very best and try to make our nation proud, as that team did. The final is in Gabon, where they perished, and the memory of the 1993 tragedy is certainly something the team can use as inspiration. Personally, it is an honour for me to represent the team and we all want to make Zambia proud."
Booking an emotional semi-final date in Libreville will be far from an easy task for the Chipolopolo, not least because they will likely be required to negotiate a way past tournament favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals. Senegal, Libya and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea make up their group stage opponents, with the former expected to advance in top spot. However, Mayuka insists that the Zambia camp is full of confidence heading into the tournament, with sights set on more than just a bit-part role at the finals.
"I think we can go all the way," Mayuka optimistically declares. "It will obviously be a big challenge but everyone is focused now and anything can happen in football. Every time you go to a tournament, you have to aim to go and win it - our target is not the quarter-finals or the semi-finals, but to win the competition.
"The unity of the team is key and we've been working really hard at our training camp in South Africa and preparation is going well. We do not have an easy group, Senegal are a good team but we are also wary that Equatorial Guinea and Libya are also strong, too. People may pick Senegal as our strongest opponents but you don't know until you get out onto the pitch. Football has continued to get better and better in Africa and all the teams are getting closer together in terms of quality."
On a personal level, the African Nations Cup will give Mayuka a platform on which to showcase his precocious striking talent. Linked with Premier League sides Fulham and Newcastle United and with clubs from France, Russia and Germany all thought to be keeping tabs on his progress, the Chipolopolo forward could soon find himself plying his trade in one of Europe's top divisions.
"It's great to read about interest from the Premier League but I am certainly in no rush to leave Young Boys," Mayuka says. "Talk is cheap and the only important thing is to prove what I can do on the football pitch. I am really concentrated on doing my best in Switzerland but of course it is impossible to predict what will happen in the future. Right now, though, I'm focused on Zambia."
The African Nations Cup has proved a great window for players to earn big moves. And while the exploits - or lack of them - of Manucho at Manchester United may have been enough to put Sir Alex Ferguson off post-AFCON swoops for life, the ambitious Mayuka - a boyhood United fan - hopes that he can one day turn out at Old Trafford and make an impact more akin to Quinton Fortune than the likes of Manucho, Mame Biram Diouf or Eric Djemba-Djemba.
"My dream has always been to play for Manchester United as I have always loved them since I was kid - it is one of my goals that I really want to achieve in life but I just have to keep working hard. I will continue to try and improve, to score goals for my club and country, and then who knows?"
For the next two weeks, Mayuka's Theatre of Dreams will be the Estadio de Bata in Equatorial Guinea as he attempts to lead Herve Renard's side to an unlikely Nations Cup semi-final. The Zambia team that perished in 1993 provide the motivation, while the team that reached the 1994 final the inspiration. For the young striker, discussions about his future and the fortunes of the national team are shaped by one mantra: "Everything is possible in this sport. "