Libreville: The memory of 18 players killed in an air crash almost 20 years ago carried Zambia`s current generation to their extraordinary African Nations Cup triumph, the team said on Monday.
Coach Herve Renard called the 18 a "silent force", while victorious players explained the importance of honouring their dead compatriots, whose plane went down not far from the Libreville stadium where Zambia won the Nations Cup against the much-fancied Ivory Coast on Sunday.
"It was very emotional and the memory of the players who died here played a big part," said midfielder Isaac Chansa.
"Once they said the final would be held in Gabon, we said this is ours this time around. It was written somewhere, you can see that from the miss of (Didier) Drogba."
Ivory Coast`s captain squandered a penalty 20 minutes from time to allow Zambia to force the game into extra time and go on to win 8-7 on penalties at the end of a thrilling encounter.
"The players who were killed in the plane crash in Gabon was what was behind us and what was driving us through the tournament," said goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene. "We did not want to go home empty-handed."
Zambia`s victorious squad left in a chartered plane for home on Monday, departing from the same airport where a Zambia air force plane had refuelled on its way to Senegal for a World Cup qualifier in March 1993, and then exploded shortly after take off.
The 18 players killed made up a highly-rated national squad, with high hopes of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, although leading forward Kalusha Bwalya was not on the flight as he was scheduled to join the team in Senegal after travelling directly from his Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.
Bwalya subsequently became the symbol of the rebuilding of Zambian soccer and is now the national football association president. His influence was evident as the players mobbed him on Sunday when he joined them in the post-match celebrations.
"There is no one who feels it more strongly than Kalusha," said Renard. "He has lived through it all these years."
Bwalya had spoken briefly to his players in the dressing-room after Sunday`s win but hid his emotion, Chansa said. "But we knew what he was feeling."
Renard said the symbolism of the final in Gabon had proved a powerful spur.
"Perhaps we were lucky in the draw when all our matches were scheduled in Equatorial Guinea," Renard said of the neighbouring country that co-hosted the Nations Cup.
"The only way we could have got to Gabon was to play in the final and this focused the players. They wanted to come and honour their fallen comrades."
Just before leaving Libreville, winger Felix Katongo told reporters: "We wanted to win the trophy to make the Zambian people proud and so those who died may rest in peace. Now their souls are at peace."
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