John Riordan: Devastating lost promise of Zambia's tragic football squad

Jay Mwamba speaks about his new book, Crash of the Buffalo
John Riordan: Devastating lost promise of Zambia's tragic football squad

RESPECT: Zambia team captain Kalusha Bwalya pays his respects to the graves of the Zambian national football team members killed in an air crash in April 1993 in Heroes Acre outside the Independence Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia. Pic: by Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Kalusha Bwalya wanted to speak with Jay Mwamba. It was 5am in New York but the unexpected wake-up call wasn’t the only reason Mwamba was discombobulated.

He knew Bwalya’s flight schedule that fateful April day in 1993. It made no sense that he should be hearing from the Zambia national team captain when there were so many other more important logistics to worry about ahead of a key World Cup qualifier away to Senegal.

They had enjoyed a good conversation a week earlier. Even though Bwalya, his squad and Zambians everywhere were growing increasingly confident of advancing to USA 94, the prospect of the footballer meeting the journalist in person in the States for their home country’s first ever finals had them both giddy.

It seems unthinkable now but even though Bwalya was enjoying a busy career with the likes of pre-Barcelona, pre-World Cup winner Romario at PSV Eindhoven, he would find time to write letters to New York, updating Mwamba on the progress of the national squad.

After over two decades of growing the game in the former Southern African British colony - partly thanks to a Newry friend of Pat Jennings called Ronnie Hollywood - Zambia was on the threshold of delivering on a golden generation promise.

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As one of three star Zambian players plying their trade at a high level in Europe, Bwalya’s route to Dakar via France was the itinerary that saved his life as well as the lives of his two fellow Mufulira Wanderers Football Club products, Charles Musonda and Jonson Bwalya.

Mwamba took the phone from his brother and tried to piece together the jarring information coming down the line from Paris.

“Oh Jay, I just got a call from Zambia... the plane…" he trailed off but Mwamba knew the next word would be ‘crashed’. This was a calamity waiting to happen.

“It was stunning,” Mwamba told me Wednesday when we spoke about his new book, Crash of the Buffalo, which tells the tragically lost promise of that Zambian squad. “I was depressed for a year after that.” 

The Zambian Air Force had provided use of a DHC-5 Buffalo, a military plane which didn’t enjoy a perfect track record. Shortly after taking off from a fuel stop in Libreville, Gabon, it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 25 passengers and five crew.

Manager Godfrey Chitalu and his assistant Alex Chola were among those who died and the squad was decimated. But, as Mwamba writes, the Zambian FA almost immediately resolved to close ranks and continue with their World Cup quest. Driven on by their surviving captain and the players who missed the flight due to injury, selection decisions or flying that different path from Europe, the rebuilt unit came within a goal of qualifying for the World Cup and then reached their first African Nations Cup final since 1974, pushing Nigeria’s Super Eagles all the way.

For 30 years, Jay Mwamba has been a household name for Irish and Irish-Americans in New York, particularly those as consumed as he is by boxing and soccer. All that time, he has been a regular contributor to the Irish Echo, the weekly newspaper read by the diaspora for almost a century. But how did a Zambian reporter jostle so successfully for the right to cover everyone from Steve Collins during his first world title shot at Giants Stadium in 1992 through to Callum Walsh’s first Garden win a few weeks back? Everyone who is anyone in Irish boxing in New York knows that Mwamba is a key conversation on their journey.

You make your own good timing in this town and the young immigrant, newly arrived in 1989, was determined to put the experience he earned back home at the Zambia Daily Mail to good use. Boxing and soccer were king and he built up contacts and knowledge in both worlds that would soon stand to him when he departed for New York.

Cameroon stuns Maradona’s Argentina in 1990 and Mwamba’s head is spinning. Zambia had stopped the first great African team qualifying for Mexico 1986. What was happening? Here is Africa emerging and how close are Zambia to doing the same?

He positioned himself perfectly as the expert on one of the greatest football stories of the new decade and a Brooklyn newspaper called the City Sun, focused on issues of interest to African Americans, featured him regularly as everyone tried to predict the next Cameroon.

His knack for eking out entrepreneurial good fortune subsequently landed him a writing gig at the Irish Echo when he learned of a local boxing tournament welcoming a team from Armagh.

Mwamba called up then editor Tom Connolly to pitch him. “And, of course, Tom heard my accent - it was stronger then - and he asked me to send through some clips. I told him I'm not sending clips and I faxed through my story and he said ‘Great, well, you get the fight. Can you do a report?’.

“I thought it was a one-off thing and then a few months later Tom calls me and he says that Steve Collins is fighting for the title at the Meadowlands against Reggie Johnson, a Don King fighter.” 

Finally, with this book, Mwamba is getting the opportunity to tell his Irish readership a little bit about where he is from.

He is as surprised as I am that little to nothing has been written about a footballing catastrophe that a lot of close observers know a little about. It is, after all, that classic, irresistible genre of destroyed potential.

The instinct and necessity to write this has been in the works for over a decade, back to when he took a digital photo of a photo and named the file, “Buffalo book 2012”. It was a picture of the cub reporter taken in the USSR in 1985. Zambia were in Moscow for the FIFA World Youth Championship and so was the man he is depicted chatting with, Frank Taylor, the only journalist to survive the Munich Air Crash that ended the lives of many of the Busby Babes.

It was a spark of inspiration to get writing, an eerie confluence of a chance encounter happening at an event to which he was sent to cover aspiring national heroes, some of whom would die the same way less than ten years later.

“I knew a lot of the players, especially the older players. I travelled with them. I knew the coaches. I even knew one of the pilots from - we were distant relatives through marriage. He was actually flying the plane because the colonel, who was the commander of the Zambia Air Force Base, wasn't in the cockpit when it happened. I found that out later.” 

As the book neared completion, Mwamba attended the 30th anniversary commemoration in April where he met many of the offspring who have taken it upon themselves to stop the legacy of their fathers from fading, staying united through a WhatsApp group called 1993.

The writer’s conversations with Michael Mutale, the brother of Kelvin Mutale, were the toughest. Kelvin Mutale was seen as their George Weah, scoring at will both for Zambia and Saudi side Al-Ettifaq where Steven Gerrard is now manager.

Mwamba also tracked down Beauty Lupiya, a reporter who had travelled on a Buffalo plane with the team a few days before the crash. She was sat next to the star striker for her first international flight covering the team and she was alarmed by the noise emanating all around them throughout a bone-jarring journey.

Mutale aired his concern to her in the Bemba language they shared. "Imagine if the plane crashed and we died.” She hushed him.

In spite of the harrowing journey, she was keen to travel onto the next leg in Senegal with the victorious Zambians. Her editor made a swap that spared her. Mutale and everyone else was dead within 48 hours.

All the destinies went off in different directions. Morocco took the spot that Zambia hoped was theirs. Nigeria wowed the world. Kalusha Bwalya’s teammate at PSV, Romario, moved to Barcelona and then to a five-goal haul that delivered a fourth World Cup for Brazil.

And the Irish Echo hitched Jay Mwamba to the Ireland adventure back and forth between New Jersey and Orlando.

“Covering the World Cup, covering Ireland and of course rooting for Ireland, it was actually very cathartic for me. It was a major consolation.”

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