Zambia 4 Italy 0: We Believed It, The Italians Couldn’t!

"It was one of the sweetest African Olympic stories ever. Mighty Italy was smashed by an African nation of which they had never even heard."

Every four years, when the Olympics Games are held, it brings back great memories of the 1988 Seoul Games where Zambia made worldwide headlines. 

We beat the Italian professionals 4-0. Believe it or not, this is still a defeat they have not forgotten. This is the same score as their recent Euro final defeat against Spain. Yet, I think the shock effect during the 1988 Games was more drastic and maybe more spectacular. 

The Italians were totally stunned, they had never even heard of Zambia—from the ‘dark’ continent—let alone a certain 25-year-old who weaved magic with the mastery of his left boot; one who found a chink in the armour of the back line, or the catenaccio of the Azzurri, to score a hat-trick—Kalusha Bwalya. 

Our journey started with a tough African zone qualification. First, we had to prevail over Uganda, 6-2 on aggregate, before going on to the final round of qualification against the dreaded Black Stars of Ghana. We lost the first leg of the final qualifier 0-1 and had to better that result at Independence Stadium in Lusaka. We did just that. We beat Ghana 2-0 to book our place at the Seoul Games. It was a fantastic feeling and moment for all of us and the whole country. 

The whole country was buzzing with the qualification. There were mixed feelings about the draw and the teams we were drawn to play. I remember how the sports back pages were filled with our black-and-white photos; the opinions of who we would be playing and what we could achieve against great opposition. 

When we got to Seoul, I remember we stayed at the same hotel as the Italians. All the players were in awe of the style and fashion that exuded from the fancied Azzurri. They were stylish; they were confident and… all that hair! I remember my teammates and I couldn’t believe it. In our plain green tracksuits, we were scared to enter the same elevator as them, so much as respect. That respect, however, did not extend to the 90 minutes of the game. Besides Charles Musonda, Stone Nyirenda and I, who played in Belgium, and Johnson Bwalya who plied his trade in Switzerland, all the other players were based in Zambia—an enigma to most Europeans. 

What a talent generation of footballers we had! 

I still recall the goalkeeping and the cat-like agility of Efford Chabala. He was a great goal custodian. I can still recall the entire first 11 as if it were yesterday. Sir Samuel Zoom Ndlovu, our coach and mentor, named his squad: from Chabala in the goals to Manfred Chabinga, Pearson Mwanza and Edmond Mumba, solid at the back; together with Ashious Melu standing tall and ready for any challenge. We had Derby Mankinka and Bwalya—we called him ‘one man commando’ for his solo and determined moves—Charles Musonda in the centre together with Samuel Chomba from the deep, and upfront with me were Wisdom Chansa and Stone Nyirenda. 

Unfortunately, we lost six members of this team in the 1993 Gabon plane crash which killed 18 of Zambia’s national team players. We lost Eston Mulenga, Wisdom Chansa, Derby Mankinka, Efford Chabala, Samuel Chomba and Richard Mwanza, Chabala’s understudy. 

Against the Azzurri, a constellation of stars, we were closely knit and determined that any off-field fears and admiration we had were never carried onto the pitch. I still remember how confident Italian goalkeeper, Stefano Tacconi, had been. At the back, I recall the tussles with Roberto Cravero and Mauro Tassotti. 

Against all the odds, we fought on to a famous victory—a pivotal moment in the realization that African football could actually compete at the highest level. The confidence gained by this victory gave African footballers the self-belief that they could compete at the highest level with the best the game could throw at them. We heralded a new era of African football. 

Our victory was one that was celebrated across the continent, even though the Olympic Games are not seen as the ultimate footballing prize. 

The lessons and experiences of that championship are still valuable to the young players of this era who dream of making a trip to the Games; for Zambians, it is still a warming football fairy tale. It may be decades since that victory against Italy, but it remains the single most important of any Chipolopolo triumph. Many use the victory in Seoul as a yardstick. 

Since 1988, young players have dreamt of Zambia’s return to the Games. Such is the interest in the Olympic Games, that even though the football team is not going to compete in London, millions will watch the football and comparisons with our exploits in Seoul will be passionately debated. 

Ultimately, it is the determination; the sacrifice of the personal athlete; the discipline and belief to do even what our inner heart may fear and the spirit of the champion, that matters most. The most important thing in the Olympics is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. I wish all the Olympians well for the 2012 London Olympics. May they ‘fight’ well and get as much satisfaction out of them as I did in 1988.

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