02/15/2012 05:30 EST | Updated 04/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Zambia's Extra Sweet Win


In the world of sports there are plenty of stars. Some of them you can call heroes, many more of them are anti-heroes, but my favourite sports narrative is that of the unsung hero.

That being said, have you ever heard the name Kalusha Bwalya?

If you aren't from Zambia, the name probably doesn't register. However it is a life that deserves recognition.

Especially after this week.

The game of soccer spans the globe. It is a ritual combat sport to some, and to others a way to break down borders and walls.

It has been described as the cheapest and simplest game to play, while simultaneously being the most difficult game to perfect.

Kalusha Bwalya never played the game of soccer perfectly.

He did, however, do something quite remarkable.

On April 27th, 1993, a Zambian Air Force plane took off from the capital of Lusaka. The passenger list that day was made up of players, coaches, and support staff of the Chipolopolo, a very promising Zambia national team.

The plane was taking them to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal and excitement filled the cabin.

After all, this team crushed football powerhouse Italy a few years beforehand at the Olympics in Seoul.

They wanted desperately to make their nation proud by solidifying a spot at their first World Cup.

They would get no such chance.

Defects in the engine and pilot fatigue caused the plane to crash into the ocean near Libreville, Gabon. Thirty people died in total, including some of the most talented players on that country's national football team.

Kalusha Bwalya was supposed to be seated next to his teammates. By a rare stroke of opportunity he was not.

Bwalya happened to be playing for a Dutch team at the time, and decided to meet his fellow countrymen at their destination instead of traveling with the group.

For many, the weight of survivor's guilt would have crushed their soul. Instead Bwalya pushed forward with the goal of rebuilding the team.

Fast forward to 1994: A makeshift squad plays in the African Cup of Nations. Bwalya is on the pitch as they play with heavy hearts all the way to the final. Sadly, adding insult to injury, they came out on the losing end in the final minutes.

He would retire some years later without realizing the dream. His unfinished business and the ultimate tribute to the teammates lost.

The opportunity would not come again during his playing days.

But it doesn't end there.

This weekend Bwalya made good on his goal to honor his fallen friends.

Now the head of soccer in Zambia, he had managed to rebuild the squad to reputable status. A bunch of no-names for the most part, players with no official ties to major house league clubs in Europe, they managed to once again make the finals of the African Cup of Nations.

This time their opponent was the Ivory Coast, a team stacked with players from big time European clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal.

They didn't have a prayer according to most.

But if you ask Bwalya, the players that lost their lives in '93 were helping guide the team.

Whether it was divine intervention or just sheer will, the unthinkable happened. On Sunday, for the first time ever, Zambia became African champions.

It happened just a few kilometres away from the exact location where the plane went down some 19 years ago.

As Bwalya hoisted the trophy, soccer added another descriptive to its list. It is a game of dedication. Not just to the sport, but to the team and sometimes country.

Kalusha Bwalya, I dedicate this to you.