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The Day A Team Died - The Gabon Air Disaster

Thursday 25th April 2013
On 27th April 1993, a military plane carrying the Zambian national football team crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after take off killing all 30 people on board. This week Next Goal Wins looks back on the 20th Anniversary of the Gabon Air Disaster, the Day A Team Died.

On 27th April 1993, the Zambian national football team were travelling to Senegal for a World Cup Qualifying match.  Hopes were high for this promising Zambian side who at the 1988 Olympics had shocked well fancied Italy, not just beating them but crushing them 4-0.  The 1988 squad had been added to, with some new exciting talent, making it a perfect blend of youth and experience.

Zambia's main sporting focus is football.  It has been football through and through ever since Britain first discovered the country and with it bought football to North Rhodesia.  For a country which has been ravaged by poverty, football has been the beacon of light, played barefoot with homemade balls.  The national team were heroes, superstars, without any of the monetary trappings of their footballing cousins in Europe.  Zambia had never yet qualified for the World Cup.  The nearest they had come to success was second place in the 1974 Africa Cup of Nations but the hope of an entire nation was with them.

They had won through the first World Cup Qualifying round and had been drawn in a second qualifying round group with Senegal & Morocco.  Each team would play each other both home and away with the overall winners heading for the 1994 World Cup, to be held in the USA.  Due to the poverty Zambia was suffering, the national football federation did not have much money and often would approach the Zambian Air Force for help in ensuring the team were able to get to away games.  The match with Senegal was to be no exception and the Air Force had agreed to provide them with a plane for trip.  On board the plane were the 18 Zambian players, the 4 man coaching team, 5 crew and three civilians.  The only member of the Zambian squad not flying was star player Kalusha Bwalya. He had been playing for his club side PSV and was making his own way to Senegal.

The flight schedule was an arduous one with three planned refuelling stops.  The first one, Brazzaville, Congo, the second, Libreville, Gabon and the third Abidjan, Ivory Coast.  The team were due to then spend the night before finishing the final leg of the journey, flying to Sengal.  In the days preceding the flight, the plane had undergone some safety checks. Some years later these checks came to light showing the plane itself was not in a fit state to fly.  Amongst the issues which had been found were engine defects and cable problems.  Whether these faults were known by the pilot will never be known and the flight left Lusaka as planned.

Arriving at Brazzaville, the pilot complained of mechanical problems and there was a delay whilst engineers carried out an inspection.  A further inspection of the engine also took place at Libreville prior to take off, no issues were reported.  A few minutes after leaving Libreville, the left engine caught fire.  At this point the pilot shut down the right engine leaving the plane powerless and it plunged straight into the Atlantic some 500 metres of the coast of Gabon.  The crash killed all 30 people on board immediately and with it died the hopes of a nation.  There was an out pouring of grief, as a nation struggled to come to terms with its loss. The team which Zambian's thought would achieve its World Cup dream were gone, lost forever to the Atlantic Ocean.

An official report into the crash blamed a faulty engine but also attributed some pilot error for shutting the wrong engine down which caused the fatal loss of power.  Also attributable to accident was the fact the pilot had flown a long flight the previous day and had not taken sufficient rest.  The members of the national team were given a heroes return. Over 100,000 people lined the streets from the airport to Heroes Acre, a site, outside the national stadium, where they were buried.

This tragic story came full circle in 2012 as the Africa Cup of Nations was held in Gabon.  The final was held in Libreville, scene of the crash some 19 years before.  Members of the 2012 squad laid wreaths' off the coast in memory of those who had perished on that fateful flight.  Some would say it was written in the stars, it was fate that Zambia would come back to Libreville and win the Cup of Nations and win they did, beating Ivory Coast on penalties.  But none of the current team or the country will ever forget that black day, 30 years ago, the day a team died.

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Tim Jones
Tim Jones is a Brighton & Hove Albion fan who can't remember life before the Seagulls. BHA highlights are an FA Cup Final, 6 promotions, a last day of season draw against Hereford to ensure football league survival and after 14 homeless years, the opening of the AMEX. Favourite players are Peter Ward, Johnny Byrne, Hans Kraay & Vicente. As well as a passion for writing about football, Tim has a passion for talking about football and can be found broadcasting from games on Mid Downs Radio. Away from football, Tim is a keen runner, cyclist & swimmer competing in marathons & triathlons. His claim to fame is he has beaten Olympian Iwan Thomas at both. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimJones15

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