LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) – With an escort of jet fighters screaming above and tens of thousands of screaming fans on the ground, Zambia’s victorious soccer team flew home Monday to a hero’s welcome.
The Copper Bullets, or Chipolopolo as the national team is called, descended from the plane to meet ecstatic fans and show off the African Cup of Nations trophy that has eluded the southern African nation for more than 30 years.
“Go Zambia, go!” the crowd roared.
The players were driven off on the backs of army trucks, on roads packed with cheering Zambians, to the showgrounds where speeches and a concert are planned.
Zambia beat favorites Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties in a nerve-racking upset Sunday at the African Cup finals in Libreville, Gabon.
Many attributed the victory to an amazing team spirit from a crew that fielded only one international player.
Zambia were the underrated underdogs at the African tournament, much like their country, which boasts a thriving democracy, a less-traveled destination for African wildlife and the spectacular Victoria Falls _ along with a booming copper industry that recently catapulted the country to the status of lower middle-income.
First off the plane Monday was Vice President Guy Scott, believed to be the highest-ranking white man in Africa and a sign that Zambia has put behind its colonial past.
Last off was team captain Christopher Katongo, standing between Zambian football association president Kalusha Bwalya and the team’s French coach Herve Renard.
It was a bittersweet victory. Last week after arriving for the finals, the Zambian players laid wreaths on a stretch of Libreville beach not far from where a Zambian military plane crashed into the ocean soon after takeoff in 1993, killing 25 players and officials on board.
“By winning the cup we have helped ease the pain of the Zambian people,” Katongo declared on his arrival home.
Striker Emmanuel Mayuka said, “I just wanted to finish what they failed to finish,” referring to the team that perished.
Bwalya is the only surviving member of that team, escaping the crash because he was flying from Europe.
“The pain of that crash still lingers and we must all remember that those players perished while trying to achieve victory and honor for our beloved country,” former President Rupiah Banda declared before he departed with a government delegation Sunday.
The players had vowed to win the 2012 championship to appease the souls of a lost generation of football stars.
Back in 1993, state broadcasters interrupted normal programming to announce the crash in the eight languages spoken in Zambia. In Lusaka, the capital, men and women wept in offices and on the streets.
On Monday, there were only cheers.
Zambians poured out of their houses, clubs and bars to celebrate in the streets early Monday, defying Police Minister Kennedy Sakeni, who said there would be no reason for people to leave their homes to celebrate.
“It is a dream come true,” said David Phiri, a plumber. Then he blew hard on his vuvuzela, the piercing trumpet heard around the world during broadcasts from the World Cup in neighboring South Africa in 2010.
Jubilant Zambians also honked the horns of cars draped in their flag, shouted from windows and sang football songs.
“It was written in the stars that we will be the champions,” Winfreda Muyunda said breathlessly as she ran out to join a street party that had converged in front of a Lusaka police station.
In the lead-up to the final, Zambians at home and abroad rejected predictions that Ivory Coast would be too strong for their Chipolopolo. Traders have done a roaring business in shirts, scarves, caps and traditional cotton wrappers known as chitenge in national colors, as well as national flags.
At least two planeloads of football fans took off from Lusaka early Sunday for Libreville.
President Michael Sata gave Scott the honor of representing his government at the final. Scott was accompanied by Kenneth Kaunda, who led Zambia to independence from Britain in 1964 and was its president for 27 years, and Sata’s predecessor, Banda.
Sata was elected last year in his fourth attempt at the presidency, campaigning as the champion of poor Zambians to oust a party that had held power for 20 years.
His government’s first budget doubled the royalties paid by copper mining companies, from 3 to 6 percent.
It also made primary health care free and lifted the tax burden from workers earning less than about $400 a month.
In July, the World Bank raised Zambia’s status from a lower-income to a middle-income country, when its per capita annual national income passed the $1,006 barrier.
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