THE Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) deserves commendation for naming the former FAZ Annual Charity Shield, the Samuel ‘Zoom’ Ndlhovu Charity Shield, which, like the English Football Association (FA), signals the start of the soccer season.
Nkana FC won this year’s Charity Shield when they beat Red Arrows 2-0 in the final played at the Arthur Davies Stadium in Kitwe last Saturday.
Zoom was an all-round sportsman who excelled in every sport, including baseball, badminton, table tennis, and boxing.
But it was on the football pitch that he made the greatest impact with the dribble, which he regarded as the supreme art of the game.
Once in possession, Ndhlovu was not only unstoppable but also a marvel to watch, as he would take off at top speed, dribbling and zig-zagging his way through a cluster of defenders.
When I migrated to Botswana in 1992, I was not aware that this iconic Mufulira Wanderers and national soccer team captain had also relocated to the country we knew in colonial days as the Bechuanaland Protectorate until the announcement that the Zambian team had “perished in a horrific plane crash” off the coast of Gabon in West
We were in a local shop when a Radio Botswana Setswana news bulletin roused my curiosity when the news reader mentioned something about “Zambia, Gabon, and Senegal”. I did not fully comprehend what was being disseminated but my wife, who understood the local language better, had captured what had happened.
The radio announcer had said: “The plane carrying the Zambian national soccer team had crashed soon after take-off en route to Dakar where they were to play Senegal in a World Cup qualifier. There are no survivors.”
Like everyone else across the globe who heard the news, I was completely shattered.
The news was more devastating to me because as a former sports journalist, I knew and had interacted with most if not all the national soccer team players and officials. In fact, I had travelled to South Korea to cover the 1998 Seoul Olympic Games where the Zambian team, which was coached by Zoom and his assistant Dickson Makwaza, made history by beating former World Cup champions, Italy 4-0.
I still remember that pulsating match as if it was played only yesterday (a brief account of that match is included at the end of this article).
Those who lost their lives in the Gabon disaster included ‘Magnificent’ Kabwe Warriors’ and Zambia’s top marksman Godfrey ‘Ucar’ Chitalu, whose record 107 goals in a single season remains unbeaten worldwide. It was simply unbelievable. So to confirm the story we immediately sped off from Mochudi, some 40 kilometres from Gaborone, the capital, to the Zambian High Commission office, called Zambia House, which is located in the Gaborone Main Mall. Who do I find at the embassy? It was certainly not an apparition.
Zambia’s former Sportsman of the Year, Footballer of the Year winner and national soccer coach Samuel ‘Zoom’ Ndhlovu was there – at the High Commission – in tears. I remember asking him what he was doing in Botswana, and Gaborone in particular, when he should have ‘died with the rest of his boys’.
Zoom told me that he would certainly have been on that aircraft but because of the last minute-differences he had with FAZ officials, he could not travel with the rest of the squad.
If I can remember correctly he said something like, “Yes, you are right, I should have been on that plane. I do not know whether I should say I am lucky, but because I had some disagreements with those fellows (FAZ chiefs) I decided to come to Botswana; I decided to come here to take up an appointment as coach of Lobatse Extension
Lobatse, which is some 70 kms south of Gaborone, is the headquarters of the Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) which had employed his friend Dickson Makwaza as coach of BMC FC.
Indeed, God’s ways are not our ways.
Why should an icon and one of the highly paid sportsmen leave Zambia for Botswana looking for greener pastures?
“That’s how bad the Zambian economy has become,” Zoom replied as he shook his head not in self-pity but in utter shock at the fact that “people’s lives seem to have been “sacrificed in such a manner”.
He was alluding to the fact that because the country’s national airline, Zambia Airways, had been “killed” as unprofitable, allegedly at instigation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the Zambian soccer team was forced to use an aging government military aircraft for the long flight to Senegal via Gabon.
Zoom probably had a premonition, but signs were already there. The same plane had been used to transport the team to Mauritius before returning to Lusaka to refuel before proceeding to Libreville en route to Dakar.
What a tragic loss, it plunged the country into national mourning. So for us in the Diaspora the best we could do was to sign the Book of Condolences that had been opened for the general public at the Zambian High Commission; and left the building.
However, what did not leave me was the thought that the dead included the players I saw in action during the Seoul Olympic Games in South Korea in 1988.
The same players starred in Zambia’s historic 4-0 triumph over Italy before the team lost by the same margin to West Germany.
While Kalusha Bwalya, who was groomed by Zoom at Mufulira Wanderers, scored a hat-trick against the Italians, Juggern Klinsmann, the current coach of the United States of America, shot to international fame by also scoring a hat-trick against Zambia.
I remember that the Germans scored all the four goals in the first half because Zoom changed his strategy in the second half. During the half-time ‘pep-talk’ he told his boys that the name of the game was football – not West Germany.
“You are respecting them too much; is it because the Germans nearly conquered the whole world? You are not playing West Germany – you are playing football. If they tackle you, tackle them,” he instructed.
The second half ended 0-0 but it was too late as Zambia did not advance to next rounds of the tournament.
Zambia was the only African team to have qualified for the Seoul Olympic Games, thanks to Sameul ‘Zoom’ magic.
Because of its performance, the team became instantly popular with local Korean fans. As usual, the Zambians were underrated. No one gave them a chance in their group that included former world champions Italy and West Germany. But by holding ‘powerful Iraq, 2-2 a team that had defeated South Korea in the Asian Games’ final, the’KK XI’ were the darlings of the Koreans who cheered them on with chants of “Ja-mbia”, “Ja-mbia”, “Ja-mbia” (I hear there is no ‘Z’ in the Korean
But for me their most memorable encounter was against Italy in which Zoom’s genius came to the fore. The authorities in Rome had in fact decided to suspend the entire Italian league to allow their stars to play in the Seoul Olympic Games. In front of a packed stadium in Kwangju, skipper Kalusha Bwalya played some of his best football,
scoring a hat-trick that earned him the 1988 Africa Footballer of Year award, as Zambia clobbered the former European giants Italy 4-0.
The fourth goal was scored by Johnston Bwalya also of Mufulira Wanderers. That victory sent ripples across the Far East and beyond.
Bwalya, the current FAZ president, escaped the Gabon disaster because he was still in the Netherlands from where he planned to fly to Senegal to join the rest of Zambian squad.
Trained as a football coach in Blackpool, England, Samuel ‘Zoom’ Ndhlovu was one of best players who thrilled Zambians with his dribbling skills and ability to score goals from impossible angles.
That is how I remember the man with a trademark smile and who piloted Zambia to that incredible victory over Italy in South Korea.