In 1986 Kalusha Bwalya became one of the first Africans to ply their trade in Europe. The 23-year-old Zambian began a footballing trek that would take him from Mufulira Wanderers to Correcaminos in Mexico via Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. King Kalu's adventures have made inspired reading for millions of would-be African superstars for more than two decades.

Kalusha's introduction to the game came from his father who worked in football administration. Along with his brother, the young kid was brought up on a diet of football and more football and the two would go with their dad to watch matches all around the southern African country.

"It kept us occupied from morning to evening," remembers Kalusha. "I saw it is a good life and was determined to stick to my guns and not fall by the wayside like so many others had done."

In 1979, the talented and determined 16-year-old scored on his debut for Mufulira Blackpool. A year later he had joined Zambia's most popular club, Mufulira Wanderers, and in 1983 once again showed an uncanny talent for hitting the mark on big occasions by scoring on his international debut against Uganda. There was certainly something about the boy and in 1986 the Belgian club Cercle Bruges decided to invest $25,000 to see if the promising African, the first since the 60s to move to Europe, could make it among the world's best.

"When I arrived, most people didn't know where Zambia was," smiles the 41-year-old. "I recall playing some of my best football in training and how happy I was when after a week they told me I was going to sign.

"I remember saying I should call my mother and father to tell them the good news and someone asking whether we had telephones in Africa - those were the days."

Selling in Seoul

Hard working, intelligent and with a left foot to die for, Kalusha was fast gaining recognition in Europe. But it was two years on and faraway in the Korean Republic where he shot to worldwide fame, becoming one of the few players to bag a hat-trick against an Italian defence in Zambia's 4-0 thrashing of the Azzurri in the Olympic Football Tournament. The Africans reached the quarter-finals, Kalusha scored six times, one behind tournament topscorer Romario. Later in 1988, he became the only Zambian to be named African Player of the Year.

He was to see much more of the Brazilian striker Romario when he moved to the big spending PSV Eindhoven the following year.

"I think Romario would have to be the best I've played with - he was simply out of this world. But there were others at PSV - Gerald Vanenberg, Eric Gerets, Hans van Breukelen, Soren Lerby - all specialists in their own position and a joy to watch in training."

There were back-to-back championships for the Dutch club in 1991/2 as the club's transfer policy moved into the modern era.

"PSV were a big team, and I was one of 14 internationals. If you went away to play for the national team, then there was no guarantee you would keep your place when you got back," he adds. "Competition was very stiff and team rotation was just beginning. Today you see how clubs such as Chelsea and AC Milan have taken it on but ours (PSV) was probably the first."

Air crash

It was because of club commitments for PSV that Kalusha did not travel on the ill-fated journey to Senegal for a FIFA World Cup qualifier in 1993. All those on board a military jet, including 18 Zambian players, were killed off Libreville, becoming known as the "Gabon Air Disaster".

"I was in Holland, preparing to make my own way there (Dakar) when someone called me to break the news," he recalls sadly. "It is something you live with every day - having a bunch of talented players who could have taken us to the greatest stage of all the world Cup not being there the next day."

Later he wrote of the impact it had on Zambian football: "We were on a roll when fate decreed otherwise. What we, the survivors, were left with were agonising and never-ending notions of what might have been. Death cruelly robbed Zambia of talent - established and emerging. My football existence continues to be defined by the events of 28 April 1993."

Despite the tragedy, Zambia's new team built around the inspirational Kalusha came within a whisker of making the 1994 FIFA World Cup and reached the final of the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia.

That same year, the much-loved Kalusha decided to make the move from Europe to Mexico and Club America. And apart from a brief stint with Al Wahda in UAE, Mexico would be the African's home for much of the next seven years, playing for Necaxa, Leon, Irapuato and Vera Cruz.

"I loved Mexico. I was born again and played some of my best football," he recalls fondly. "Football is so big there it's hard to comprehend. But I can tell you there's not much that compares with playing in front of 120,000 fans at the Azteca."

Always making time for his country, there were more appearances at the African Cup of Nations. In 1996, the striker's five goals earned him the mantle of topscorer in South Africa as Zambia finished third. He captained Zambia in Burkina Faso and two years later at Nigeria 2000, scoring on what, approaching 37, was billed to be his final international match.

But like another great African, Cameroon's Roger Milla, Kalusha's powers refuse to wane. In a series of last comebacks, Zambia football supporters are enjoying witnessing the sight of a living legend.