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Remembering the darkest day in Zambian football

Irfan Kawri was only 11 when Zambia's Golden Generation were lost in a plane crash in 1993, but 25 years since that tragedy, the former Chipolopolo assistant coach remembers a day that changed the face of the nation's football.

That side appeared destined for great things, having been built upon the 1988 Olympic side that had thrashed Italy 4-0 in Seoul in a remarkable display of vibrant attacking football.

They were set to be one of the favourites at the 1994 African Cup of Nations, and harboured realistic hopes of reaching the 1994 World Cup.

However, on April 27 1993, the team were lost en route to play a World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar when their DHC-5 Buffalo crashed off the coast of Gabonese capital Libreville soon after taking off.

"The 1993 plane crash tragedy will live me for the rest of my life," Kawri told KweséESPN. "The were known as the best [Zambian] team of all time, and were so close to qualifying for the USA 1994 World Cup.

"I still remember that day," he added. "I was only 11 years old, my uncle told me, and it was a massive shock, we just couldn't believe it.

"My family and I really had high hopes for this team and thought we were going to make the World Cup," he continued. "I really feel this team could have set the benchmark for Zambian football by getting to the first World Cup and who knows what could have been."

That fine Chipolopolo side, known as the KK11 as a homage to Zambia's founding father - President Kenneth Kaunda - boasted the likes of Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Derby Makinka, and Charles Musonda - the father of current Chelsea youngster Charly.

After the disaster, which also cost the life of Zambia's record scorer Godfrey Chitalu, who was travelling with the team as a trainer, the side were rebuilt around their finest player and sole survivor - Kalusha Bwalya.

By virtue of being based in the Netherlands, the attacker avoided the flight, but still guided a reconstituted side to the final of the 1994 AFCON, where they heroically reached the final before being defeated by Nigeria's own Golden Generation.

"I think after this tragedy footballers in Zambia have felt obliged to give it their all for their nation and for these heroes who passed away," Kawri added. "In particular, Kalusha Bwalya, as these were his teammates.

"He was not on that flight as he was in Holland at the time and used to get separate flights direct to where the team would be."

One of African football's greatest tragedies was ultimately inextricably linked with one of the continent's greatest footballing fairytales 19 years later.

In 2012, with the AFCON being held in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, Zambia found themselves back at the site of their darkest hour.

After an emotionally charged run to the final, the Southern African underdogs downed a star-studded Ivory Coast side 8-7 on penalties to win the nation's first continental crown.

The team - in scenes transmitted across the world - prepared for the showpiece fixture by visiting the coast, at the site of their national tragedy, to pay tribute to the heroes who had gone before.

"I feel this tragedy has brought a real synergy to the national team," current Queens Park Rangers opposition scout Kawri added. "In 2012, when the team won the AFCON in Gabon, where the heroes had perished all of those years ago, it was like a fairytale.

"I still remember the famous [football commentator] Denis Liwewe saying before the game that the heroes' spirits would be with us in the final against Ivory Coast.

"I think Zambian players. and certainly the ones I have worked with, always feel they have to do that bit more and really give it their all for their country and these heroes," concluded Kawri. "I feel the shadow it casts over Chipolopolo means we will always remember them and dedicate any sort of success to them.

"I definitely feel a parallel can be made with the Munich and Hillsborough disasters, with the Chipolopolo becoming stronger in the face of tragedy."

Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.

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