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Was the Zambia I knew a better team?

There is a common African belief that the dead actually never die.

What transpired in Libreville, Gabon over the weekend tempts me to believe like others that the spirits of the fallen Zambian footballing heroes of 1993 might have emerged from the Atlantic and joined hands with the Chipolopolo stars to clinch the African Nations Cup title, writes Robert Mugagga.

Well, the Zambians have broken the ice. They have made history by becoming the first East and Southern African nation to clinch the continental top honours. Many thought the Uganda Cranes would make it first but our boys narrowly missed the chance way back in 1978. Reason all soccer fans from this region should salute the Zambians for putting us on the map of continental soccer. Now gone is the era when winning nations had to come from either west or North Africa.

And who thought the mighty Zambians are any stranger to Uganda? The southern Africans have been both our soccer pals and rivals ever since 1973 when the doors of CECAFA were opened for them. It has been a long and gruelling road for the Zambian national soccer team, a road which has led from the densely populated suburbs of copper belt to the soccer capitals of the world.

The Zambian team, then known as KK Boys after Kenneth Kaunda, the founding father of the nation actually first won the CECAFA title on Ugandan soil, at Nakivubo Memorial War stadium in 1984. They had before that finished as runners up to Uganda Cranes in 1976 and 1977. Their 1984 squad was one of the best ever seen. The Zambians I knew were being coached by a military colonel, Brightwell Banda and had skillful players like skipper Jones Chilengi, Kalusha Bwalya, Dominic Mutale, Jack Chanda, Ghost Mulenga, Lucky Msika, Fighton Simukonda, Jerry Shinde, Fredrick Kazimoto and of course that acrobatic goalkeeper Effort Chabala.

In the 1984 CECAFA semis against Kenya, Zambia beat defending champions Kenya 2-0 in extra time with both goals coming from the stylist striker Phillimon Mulala. It was indeed a memorable match. The Zambians I knew were good dribblers very fast on the ball and played long passes. Reason, whenever they came here, they proved to be the darling to the Nakivubo crowd. Against Kenya, Effort Chabala proved that he was the best goalkeeper of the tournament when at one time from nowhere palmed the ball from Joe Masiga who had started celebrating, thinking he had scored in an empty net.

Some of us were reminded of a similar save England legendary goalkeeper, Gordon Banks pulled off against Pele in 1970. The Zambians I knew, save for a few like Kalusha Bwalya were very muscular and towering. They would make the likes of Ibrahim Ssekagya look like a dwarf. In the 1984 final against Malawi, they emerged victorious in spot kicks after a barren cup final. The final  saw many of their fans fly into Entebbe in hundreds in chartered planes to support their team. Some of these fans at one time almost fainted when towards the end of the game skipper Jones Chilengi failed to convert a penalty awarded to Zambia after Young Chimodzi handled in the forbidden area. Moments later Malawi danger man Clifton Msiya broke through, but for only Effort Chabala to save the day for the copper belters.

Before that, Zambia had produced some of the most feared footballers in the region and continent at large. Which Ugandan of the seventies will for instance ever forget prolific goal grabbers like Godfrey Chitalu, Alex Chola, Peter Kaumba and legendary goalkeeper Emmanuel Mwape? Godfrey Chitalu is regarded as one of the most feared strikers in the history of the CECAFA Challenge Cup.

Surprisingly Some of these featured for Zambia against the Cranes at Nakivubo in 1977 and lost 3-0. Veteran Zambian soccer commentator Denis Liwewe was left speechless and remarked that the Uganda Cranes team then was one of the greatest soccer squads he had ever seen. For starters, Zambia has not only just emerged as a soccer power. Their quest for international honours started in 1973 when they emerged as one of Africa’s three best soccer nations then with Zaire and Morocco.

Only that the history of Zambia soccer since independence had been a sad tale of defeats and near misses.  In March 1974, Zambia forced a 2-2 draw against the powerful Zaire Leopards in the Nations cup final played over two days. In the replay that followed the impasse, Zaire carried the day and won 2-0.

Zambia has also represented Africa in the Olympics of 1976 in Montreal, Canada and in 1980 in Moscow.  In all, the Zambian team I knew was undoubtedly better in most departments than the current champions of Africa. In my view if the 1993 squad had not perished into the Atlantic possibly Zambia would already have represented Africa in the World Cup. This is of course not to belittle the current team, for their playing style and overall organization.


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