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Kalusha Bwalya: the legend goes on

Date: Sep 08 2004
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He is Zambia's coach, association vice-president and still at 41 their inspiration on the field. Fresh from scoring the last-gasp winner to send his nation to the top of the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying group, Kalusha Bwalya, the only player from southern Africa to pick up the continent's player of the year award, talks to about joy, tragedy and an everlasting fairytale.

Kalusha should never have played against Liberia. Zambia's greatest footballing son had long since retired from the game as a player and just two months before had come on as a second half substitute against Mauritius in a Cosafa Cup match to bid farewell to the nation's 10 million football-loving population.

"I just wanted to say goodbye to the fans," reasoned the Zambia coach, who was appointed last year. "We'd always had a good relationship and I'd never got the chance before to thank them for their support."

But with a classic Kalu strike within minutes of coming on, things were not quite so clear in his mind.
"It was my 49th goal in 99 appearances," he explained from Athens where he was working as a member of FIFA's Technical Study Group at the Olympic Football Tournament. "Then I began thinking that it would be nice to make a century of appearances and maybe get 50 goals."

Many people believed Kalusha, who had been training with the team to keep in good shape, would run out in an easy friendly later in the year to try to reach the double milestone. But in Athens he had whispered something of his real intention. "I will come on with five minutes to play and score a free kick," he joked?

And with Zambia lacking firepower in their crucial Germany 2006 qualifier against Liberia, the coach shocked watchers in Lusaka first by warming up on the touchline and then throwing himself into heart of the action in the second half. In truth it was one of the dullest games witnessed in the Zambian capital but not one of the 35,000 paying spectators would have missed what happened with time almost up. Kalusha, one of Africa's greatest ever players, added to his mythical status by bludgeoning a free kick high into the net.

"I just thought I am going to hit the ball with all my might. I think that is one of the best goals I have ever scored.

"When the ball went in, I couldn't believe it and that is why I ran faster after scoring than the entire 20 minutes I was on the pitch," Kalusha said before stressing he would not be making a proper comeback.

"I did not tell a lot of people because we had to produce something out of the ordinary," the coach said after his wonder goal. "I just had to come in to help the boys."

And so it was 50 goals in 100 appearances. Although Kalusha was well known for scoring decisive efforts, few could have been more crucial, sending Zambia to the top of Group 1 alongside Togo and Senegal and giving them a realistic chance of reaching their first FIFA World Cup finals.

Kalusha was chosen as Africa's' best 16 years ago when the Chipolopolo attacking midfielder seemed to be at the height of his powers. Even before scoring a hat-trick in a 4-0 Olympic thrashing of Italy, his excellent performances in Belgium meant that he would become a pioneer for more African footballers in Europe. Since then he has embarked on something of a footballing globetrot taking in Europe, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates in a long and distinguished career. During those years, his dedication to Zambia has been total. He starred in six African Cup of Nations competitions, captaining the Bullets to the final in 1994, two years after the majority of the precocious Seoul 88 side were wiped out in the "Gabon Air Disaster", one of football's most devastating tragedies.

Wherever he played Kalusha always made time for his country. The footballing fortunes of the proud nation have inevitably taken a tumble in recent years but with their legendary captain progressing to coach, success could soon be on the horizon.

So will Kalusha continue his comeback against the Congo in March 2005? Such has been the man's magical contribution, Zambians will not stop believing.