FIFA.com sat down for an emotional conversation with Zambian legend Kalusha Bwalya. Now president of his country’s FA, he was captain of the national team that, in 1993, tragically lost 18 members in a horrific plane crash. He was on hand this month as a new generation of Zambian footballers confronted the past and victoriously hoisted an historic Africa crown, fittingly at the very site of the crash, in Libreville, Gabon.
“It was this team’s destiny to return to Gabon to make their fallen heroes proud,” said FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter in a letter to Kalusha, who returned to the pain and anguish of Libreville to find joy, celebration and redemption through football.
FIFA.com: What were your expectations heading into the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations?
Kalusha Bwalya: We came to the finals with faith in our team. I told the boys: ‘the most important thing is to come back with a medal, no more no less.’ I wasn’t sure we could achieve that, but we had faith in the abilities of the boys. For such a tournament, you have to be in form. From our first game with Senegal, you could see that we were ready.
And in the end, Stoppila Sunzu scored his penalty in the shoot-out to win the title and make history…
We had a chance to win if Rainford Kalaba scored his penalty, but then Gervinho (Côte d'Ivoire) missed and Stoppila Sunzu stepped up. It was a very emotional moment. He has very good technique. He’s a great midfielder, but I still had to calm myself. All the penalties were hard to take. I know Chris Katongo is always calm, the goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene is probably one of the best penalty takers on the continent. Then I looked at Isaac Chansa, and then it came to Nathan Sinkala, a young kid… I started thinking ‘it’s going to be like in 2010, when one of the boys missed a penalty-kick against Nigeria in the quarter-final.’ But then I was very confident when it was Sunzu’s turn. At the same time, I was also very confident with Kalaba. So yes, it was really a lot of emotions and I must have jumped six feet in the air when we finally made it.
Was it harder in the stands than it used to be on the pitch?
As a player I had some pressure but I enjoyed it. When I was a coach, I started to think of everybody: the players, the fans, the people around. And now as a President, the pressure is doubled and I feel more stressed than I was when I was a player or a coach! [laughs] But it’s still the same game, and I get more satisfactions than before as well. I’m also very tense I must say, because I feel responsible for everything that happens. Sometimes I probably want to do too much work as President!
You lost a CAN final in 1994. Did you talk about that experience to the players?
I told them one thing about the 1994 final. There’s one picture where all the players are crying except me. I was not crying because I had already cried enough that year for the boys who passed away in 1993 [in the Zambian air disaster]. I then did not feel like crying because I thought ‘we have done our best and if it was not meant to be, it was not meant to be.’ So I told the boys this time: ‘Go out and enjoy it. Don’t be tense. If there’s one day you have to enjoy, it’s today. You won’t realize it now, but in 20 or 30 years you’ll know what I meant because I went through it.’ I was trying to calm them down by saying ‘today is just an ordinary game, just go out and enjoy yourself!’
What has been the impact of Herve Renard in this success?
For me, Herve Renard is the best coach in Africa at the moment. So many times Zambia was in a position to win something and finally failed, because, as we say in our language, ‘one of the boys go to sleep’. So basically Herve had to keep them awake this time! And he was there, playing the game during 90 minutes on the bench, I liked that. I think he’s done a fantastic job with our team.
What makes him a great coach?
He believed in himself, the substitutions he made were spot on. In the end our name was on the cup so it means everything was together - emotionally, physically, tactically. Now he still has a lot to do for the national team, he’s got a bright future as a coach! Next step is the World Cup qualifiers. We’ve never qualified, but now when we talk about it, people believe in us more. It’s starting in June so we’ll have to be ready. Expectations have grown, we are now known. I have to calm the expectations down a bit because everybody is in the clouds at the moment, and rightly so!
Renard said about this victory: ‘It was a sign of destiny, written in the sky’, referring to the air disaster of 1993. Do you share this feeling?
The boys in 1993 were the best of their generation. I was captain of that team. The team had been together for some time, a little bit like the team of this year. From 1986, then 1988 at the Olympics, the CAN 1992 when we lost to Côte d’Ivoire. That team was remembered for beating Italy at the Olympics in 1988. That team was good because there was talent and hunger. That team was always playing above its potential.
And there was a special support for that team from the people of Zambia?
We were playing a game in Lusaka, people would line up the day before and sleep in the stands. This is the kind of connection we had with the people. And then the tragedy happened in Libreville, in Gabon.
What was the impact of the 1993 air disaster on this year’s team?
I told the kids there was no pressure. Some would feel more emotional than others, some were one or two years old when it happened. But to go to Libreville, we had to reach the semi-finals, before that we would be in Equatorial Guinea. So already that task was huge. I wanted to visit the place where the plane crashed to make a connection between the two teams, between the past and future. I wanted to have a kind of hand-over. I wanted these players to pay respect to the fallen players. So somehow, the fact that we would come to Libreville only in the semi-finals was a source of motivation. The day we arrived, we had promised to go directly to the place of the crash to pay our respect. That was a very moving ceremony. There was a connection with the families; there was something in the air. I then had done my part as captain of the former team, to bring them the new team. I wanted the boys to appreciate that they’re not the first ones by far. That some have literally sacrificed their lives to be where we are. So I said ‘let them do the justice: if we can lift the trophy for them, that would be great.’ They had so much wanted to be African champions…
In this team, some relatively unknown players impressed everyone. Were you impressed with anyone in particular?
Everybody played a part in this team. The goalkeeper is established in South Africa; he’s captain of his club and he takes the penalties. Sometimes he may be a bit too comfortable. [laughs] Then there’s Sunzu, who is very talented. He was at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007. Rainford Kalaba was the motor for this team. If he’s in form, our team is on form. He can intervene two or three times in a game at key moments, give that decisive pass or score a goal. Christopher Katongo, our captain, plays like the old team: his fighting spirit is fantastic. He’s in top form since November and kept that level during the whole tournament, that’s phenomenal. And of course, Emmanuel Mayuka, who plays on the flanks normally, but he had to play centre-forward. And he scored goals at crucial moments. Isaac Chansa, Chisamba Lungu were also great. As I said, it was a team effort and because everyone was on top form, the team could play the kind of football they played.
One moving moment was when Renard carried the injured Musonda during the celebrations...
Our teams have always been based on unity and harmony, we always had good groups. Joseph Musonda, who’s probably the oldest national team player [he began his career in 2002], still loves his football, and he always has a great spirit. And you could see when he got injured he was still motivated to play. So we felt really sorry for him when he was crying. Then the coach did well to bring him to the pitch to celebrate. But that’s the kind of spirit we have in this team. We want to build our team on that spirit. The other teams do not know us well, but they’ll remember us after the game. That’s the idea.
Tell us about the support from the people of Zambia?
Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable. We started the competition against Senegal with a kick-off at 22.00 local time, which is 23.00 Zambian time. We won that match and then we heard that people were celebrating back home until the early hours. We did not believe it until we received pictures. We never received so much support. From the first game, people believed in their team. After the final, people went straight to the airport in Lusaka and slept there to wait for us. There were one million people in the streets, every one of them with a flag. We could not believe that. It was very emotional. Even today we can’t really believe we are African champions. We wake up every day and feel happy. In Zambia, everybody can’t stop talking football and the magic of the Cup at the moment! I just thank God I could live that moment. From 1993, I wanted to see one day that Zambia would be champions. And now I have.