Why can’t we be friends? (Part 2)

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An extraordinary sporting tale of redemption

Part 2: The Zambian miracle

When we left off last week, football was still in a dark, gloomy, desolate place. But then came the 12th of February, the glorious Sunday, when just before midnight it suddenly felt right to be a sports fan again.

Less than two weeks after the Egyptian disaster, on the same continent, some 4000 kilometres to the south-west, what transpired was perhaps one of the greatest footballing stories ever told. The venue was the Gabonese capital Libreville, the occasion was the African Cup of Nations final, and it was Zambia’s date with destiny. It was their third final, and as the old saying three time’s the charm, they stunned their opponents, the overwhelming favourites Ivory Coast, to win their first continental trophy. That’s all cute enough, but the fairytale only begins there. Rewind 19 years to the 27th of April 1993. Same location, same team, only this time they were on a plane to Senegal to play the world cup qualifiers. After refuelling at Libreville and just after take-off, the plane crashed and killed all 30 passengers, including 18 national players. One of the rare survivors from that generation was the then-captain and current president of the Zambian football federation Kalusha Bwalya, who had made separate travel arrangements from his club PSV Eidhoven. The national team was crippled. The nation was shocked. But then things got worse.

For you see, even 19 years on, Zambia and Gabon are not exactly best of friends. In the aftermath of the tragedy relations between the two countries deteriorated badly. There were street protests, rows over accident investigation and even blatant accusations. The last straw was the Gabonese referee Jean-Fidel Diramba, who denied a freshly rebuilt Zambian squad qualification for the 1994 World Cup with his strange officiating. From that moment on, relations between Zambia and Gabon were shattered, and luckily both countries are separated by thousands of kilometres, otherwise we might have witnessed the “Football War 2: the African Affair”, a sequel to the conflict between Honduras and el Salvador, for which a football qualifier for the 1970 World Cup was the catalyst. Even nowadays, in Zambia the word gabon means something untrustworthy, which you’ll agree is not really a promising sign of the two countries coming to more friendly terms anytime soon.

The script was written long ago

But as you may know, fate has a peculiar sense of humour. Not only was this final played at Stade d’Angondjé, which is situated only some 500 metres from the site of the fateful crash. Not only have Zambia reached the final against all odds, and were pretty much the underdogs in it as well. Not only was the whole world cheering for the side of the unpretentious Frenchman Hervé Renard (who also did himself proud). Perhaps one of the most remarkable of all the extraordinary memories in the final was the reaction of the predominantly Gabonese crowd. Some degree of Schadenfreude might have been understandable. They might have even been expected to be hostile.

But, rather than being bloody obvious, the Gabonese took Zambia’s bittersweet tale and the triumph of human spirit to heart, and so it was that with their backing the Chipolopolo prevailed over Ivory Coast in dramatic fashion (video), wrote the ultimate feel-good story that transcended the purely sporting confines and redeemed not just Bwalya and his team-mates, not just the entire nation, but two entire nations. Now if a single football game can heal the deep wounds caused by tragedy on a national scale and bring two entire nations to reconcile after a 19-year rift, surely somewhere in there must be a poignant message for all of us to hear as well?

Can’t we all just get along?

So there you have it. On one hand is an Achilles heel of many sporting events, but none more so than football, namely the inexcusable behaviour of some individuals which is so disgraceful and primitive that one cannot help but wonder if this is truly the developed world and the 21st century we live in. But while on the other hand you have such heart-warming, beautiful reminders of what sports is truly all about, surely there is a way to channel all that cumulative energy into something positive? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a healthy sporting rivalry, but some incidents rather take things to extremes. And I’m also pretty sure that the majority of fans still look upon the game as a chance to express their accumulated emotion, passion and love for the sports in one massive roar from the terraces, rather than to bash some other poor sod’s head in, rampage around, maim people and destroy property. Because let’s face it, the latter are not fans, not even ultras, but just plain idiotic savages or, in other words, hooligans (video).

So the thing we should ask ourselves is, why not exploit this extraordinary phenomenon? Why not act constructively instead of destructively? I believe we can get along just fine. All it takes is some heart, an open mind and a little bit of effort. And Zambia might just have provided us with the perfect proof that sport can bring people together in ways not many other things can, and this attitude towards life should really be the right way.


Guest author Jernej Ogrin is an avid football fan and likes the beautiful game to be played beautifully. On and off the pitch. He also loves the passion, the drama and the underdog story (apart from some of Europe’s biggest clubs), so he likes to bore anybody willing and unwilling to listen with his insight into the nuances of the game.

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