Mweene was a little boy when the 1993 crash occurred but the tragic story is one that he and the current generation of national team colleagues know well, as tales of the tragedy have been passed on.
“Most of us were in primary school when the crash happened, but Kalusha [who narrowly escaped death, as he was supposed to have travelled on that plane] remembers it vividly. He has encouraged us to keep those that perished in our minds, whenever we fight for our country.”
Yet those words would have been incomplete without a journey to Libreville, the city of the crash, with the stadium in which they played the February final just metres away from the Atlantic Ocean.
On their arrival in the Gabonese capital for the Cup-winning game, having played all their matches in Equatorial Guinea, it was a matter of course that paying homage to the departed was an immediate duty that had to be performed.
“Twelve million Zambians wanted us to go the whole way to Libreville [for the final]… It is imperative we play for them,” Renard said.
Solemn hymns and sombre speeches characterised that brief ceremony, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, with the players laying wreaths before preparing for the dramatic final.
“They came in plastic bags in death,” commentator Dennis Liwewe recalled. “We will not come back from there with a defeat… If we are going to lose, then we are going to lose with dignity and honour but we won’t come back from there in black bags of death. We will come with victory for Mother Zambia.”
Liwewe’s words, which summed up the passionate feelings of most Zambians, certainly set the scene for the nail-biting match, with the overwhelming majority of non-Zambian fans willing the Chipolopolo to win, as they clearly showed their dislike of the Ivorians. Having more than matched the supposedly superior Ivorian team throughout the 120 minutes of play, Zambia’s growth in mental strength was evident when it came down to the penalty shootout.
With the Chipolopolo conceding just three goals en route to the final and Ivory Coast none, the game, undoubtedly the most exciting match of the entire tournament, did not fail to provide drama, which kept everyone on edge until the very end.
The triumph of the Chipolopolo saw a nation erupt into joyous celebrations, as never seen before.
President Michael Sata, who rewarded each player with $59,000 on their return to Lusaka, had sent a high-powered delegation, which included founding president Dr Kenneth Kaunda, Rupiah Banda, Sata’s predecessor, and Guy Scott, the incumbent vice-president, to witness the final.
Kaunda, an avid football fan (who had his initials form the previous moniker of the national team, then known as the KK11), was joyous on seeing the Chipolopolo win the title for the first time.
“This is an amazing experience and we can only thank God for this joyous moment. The people of Zambia have been honoured and we have to be grateful to the creator for this victory,” he said.
“I am happy the boys did it in style, in memory of the late colleagues and the next step is the World Cup,” former president Banda added.
Both men were present at the luncheon that President Sata and his wife hosted for the victorious team at State House. “You have really honoured your departed colleagues who perished during the course of national duty off the coast of Gabon. To the coaches, team management, Football Association of Zambia executive and everybody involved, I say it is a job well done,” Sata said. “You went with admirable humility and competed with heart, unity and patriotism… The result of your hard work is the trophy which you have brought to your motherland for the first time.
“This gesture was meant to demonstrate to you and the entire nation how much importance we attach to football and how this sport unifies our country,” he said. “Indeed, you have demonstrated once again that nothing beats unity and hope and it is my desire that you will continue with this spirit as you pursue even greater success.”
Financial rewards for the players will not just be coming from the government, as mobile telecommunications company MTN Zambia pledged $200,000 and Zambian Breweries gave a $40,000 reward. Other corporate organisations, keen to bask in the reflected glory of the Nations Cup triumph, are expected to join the victory bandwagon.
FAZ president Bwalya is already looking beyond the euphoria of victory, as he says that qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, which would be another footballing first for the country, is a priority.
“This is certainly the best team that Zambia has produced in the 30 years that I have been associated with the national team,” Bwalya commented shortly after the final. “The courage and determination that the players showed throughout the tournament was incredible and I salute them.”
With Renard’s success with the Chipolopolo firmly putting him in the frame of national teams and clubs looking for an inspiring figure to transform their football, the Frenchman will certainly be tempted by lucrative offers to move elsewhere. And as his move to Angola, after his first stint with Zambia ended in 2010, indicates, he is not averse to the lure of more money.
But Renard has promised that he will stay with his team and consolidate on the gains of the Nations Cup victory: “I have been asked a lot of questions about that [returning to Ghana, where he was assistant coach in 2008]. I don’t think it would be fair to leave Zambia… I have to stay with them; we have to stay within the family and to continue our work.”
It is certainly the desire of a grateful nation, which hopes the victory in Gabon is just the beginning of a new chapter in the annals of the Chipolopolo, in which the February 12th triumph is the start of a lengthy, glorious era.