LUSAKA, Zambia, February 14 – Zambia’s national team arrived home Monday to an ecstatic welcome from thousands of fans who gathered to greet the Copper Bullets after they won the country’s first Africa Cup of Nations title.
Brandishing the gold trophy they claimed in a nail-biting penalty shootout against Ivory Coast on Sunday, the African champions waved to a massive crowd that had been gathering for more than nine hours in sweltering heat at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in the capital, Lusaka.
The team then boarded a bus for the Lusaka showgrounds, where an estimated 200,000-strong crowd dressed in the orange, green and black of the national team had gathered for official celebrations after an unofficial all-night party.
The crowd sang solidarity songs while others blew vuvuzelas, and when the team finally entered the arena police had a tough time trying to control the situation.
The Zambian players, dressed in matching blue suits and red ties waved to the crowds as they passed the trophy from one player to another.
Amid chaotic scenes, Zambia’s vice president Guy Scott and the team were soon whisked away, a move that angered some of Lusaka’s football-crazy residents.
“This is poor organisation. They keep us here the whole day and leave without saying anything. This is rubbish,” moaned Barbara Zulu, dressed in Zambian colours and with her face painted.
The 8-7 win on penalties after 120 goalless minutes in Sunday’s final had emotional overtones for Zambia.
The final was staged in the Gabonese capital Libreville, off whose coast a military aircraft carrying the 1993 Zambian national squad plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 30 players, officials and crew on board.
French coach Herve Renard and his young squad, just one of whom lines up for a first-division European club, had vowed to bring the trophy back to Lusaka as a tribute to those who died.
Many fans attributed their success over the star-studded Elephants to the benevolent spirits of their fallen comrades, who died travelling to a World Cup qualifier.
“From the word go, I knew that Zambia would win, because that is where our fathers are resting, in Gabon,” said Michael Mwale.
Thousands of Zambians paid sombre tributes to the fallen 1993 team, bringing prayers and flowers to their graves at the now-mothballed Independence Stadium.
“We have been helped by the fallen heroes to get this far, and now they should rest in peace,” mourner Brenda Mwale said at the graveside.
Elsewhere it was pure celebration.
Fans at the airport held placards celebrating the victory of Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets, named for the country’s chief export) and deriding the much-favoured Elephants.
“Elephants fail to withstand bullets,” read one.
“My hero is Mweene, he is the one that made us win!” said Antony Kabwe, referring to keeper Kennedy Mweene, who was decisive in the victory.
Shouting above the deafening roar of vuvuzelas, the long plastic trumpets made famous by the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Angela Chanda said the victory added to excitement around the new regime of President Michael Sata, who won office in September after beating a party that had been in power for 20 years.
“We have a new government and things are moving our way,” she said.
The homecoming followed an all-night party that erupted after the team lifted the Nations Cup trophy in Libreville’s Stade de l’Amitie in the early morning hours local time.
State radio joined the jubilation, playing songs predicting Zambia’s victory. Until the Cup was won, the songs had been barred from the airwaves as unduly optimistic.
“Our tears for the team that perished in Gabon should now be eased with the Zambia victory,” go the lyrics of one of the many songs composed in local languages.
A heavy police presence helped prevent the partying from getting out of hand, after 11 deaths in traffic accidents were earlier blamed on celebrations tied to the three-week tournament.