the day Zambia humiliated Italian football

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Zambian striker Kalusha Bwalya during a Zambia-Mozambique match in Burkina, in February 1998.

This September 19, 1988, the Italians must have found a bitter taste in their morning espresso. It was at breakfast time, jet lag required, that they witnessed the crushing defeat of their national team, at the Olympic Games in Seoul, against Zambia, with a clear score of 4-0. In a country where football is a very serious matter, this underwear has trouble getting through. Italy, despite the presence of many players from Juventus Turin, Naples or AC Milan, has just suffered a historic affront inflicted by a bunch of strangers, divided between Zambia for the majority of them, Belgium and Switzerland.

The Chipolopolo – the Zambian team’s nickname which means « copper balls » – have achieved the greatest national sporting feat since independence gained in 1964. And one man more than others embodies this pride of an entire country. His name is Kalusha Bwalya. The 25-year-old forward has built a small reputation at Cercle Brugge, Belgium, where he landed in 1985 from his hometown club Mufulira United. Before facing Italy in Gwangju, 270 kilometers from Seoul, Zambia was however held in check by Iraq (2-2), while the Transalpines beat too naive Guatemalans (5-2).

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The Squadra Azzura, of course, cannot lose. For all specialists in international football, this is a crazy assumption.  » But that day, Zambia arguably played their best football in at least a decade. Bwalya recalls. The striker, with a left foot that will later delight PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) and America Mexico (Mexico), surprises the Italians for the first time by scoring just before half-time. Juventus Turin goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi was unaware that his nightmare had only just begun.

Ten minutes after the quarter of an hour of regulatory rest, Kalusha Bwalya, on a free kick yet eccentric, plunges Italy a little more into doubt.  » This goal gave us even more confidence. We felt like we were very strong, that our opponent couldn’t come back », Says the striker. A namesake, Johnson Bwalya, continues the epic by scoring the third goal. And Kalusha, who has decided to be the hero of the day, goes for his hat-trick in the last moments of a match « Which we will talk about for generations ».

Memorable soap

The world is surprised by the magnitude of the score, without really knowing if Zambia were really exceptional or if Italy, too sure of itself, missed the meeting.  » We surprised ourselves. I think a lot of people found out about Zambia that day! », Describes Bwalya. The Italians, ashamed and upset, go straight to the locker room where their coach, Francesco Rocca, passed them, according to legend, a memorable soap.

Meanwhile, the Chipolopolo, who rallied the originally neutral South Korean spectators to their cause, savor their performance by staying long minutes on the lawn of Mudeug Stadium.  » We had come to South Korea with no real goal other than to leave a good impression and do our best., continues the one who would later become president of the Zambian Federation. I think our performance gave confidence to other African selections for the following Olympics. An allusion to Nigeria and Cameroon, crowned Olympic champions in 1996 and 2000.

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Two days after the feat, Zambia will correct Guatemala (4-0) with two new goals from Kalusha Bwalya, before falling heavily in the quarter-finals against a Germany that was still called RFA (0-4), and future bronze medalist:  » The Germans were probably suspicious of us after our victory against Italy. They scored very quickly, took advantage of our little mistakes in concentration, but this loss will never erase what we did in South Korea. « 

The history of this amazing Zambian team will also be marked by tragedy. On April 27, 1993, 500 meters from the Gabonese coast, opposite Libreville, the plane carrying the twenty-five members of the Zambian delegation and five crew members crashed in the Atlantic due to an error in piloting. All the passengers were killed, including eighteen footballers. Six of them had participated in the Seoul Olympics.  » We lost some very promising players, a whole generation. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them », Sighs the hero of Seoul. As a fair return of fate, in 2012, Zambia became African champion, in Libreville precisely.

Summary of our series « These Africans who made the Olympics »

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