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Monday, 17 November 2014

From grief to promise, victory and glory

By Andrew Mulenga

“Nga waumfwa ubwite bwa mfumu, wasuke muchinshi muchinshi, wasuke auti Kalombo Mwane (When you hear the call of the LORD, answer with respect, answer saying Kalombo Mwane),” chants an all-male choir setting the tone for Eighteam the new documentary on the football in Zambia, a Spanish and Zambian co-production by writer, director and producer Juan Rodriguez-Briso of Omnicorp Estudio and co-producer Ngosa Chungu of Purple Tembo Media. 

The lyrics are a mixture of Bemba and Luvale and this particular song has been sung in the Catholic Church for quite some time now although a contemporary adaptation has been popularized by singer B M Sampa on his hit 2009 album “Bola Panshi” or “ball on the ground” (a Bemba exclamation used on the pitch advising players to take it easy when facing opponents that are good in the air.)

Photo credit: FAZ
The words Kalombo Mwane are a Luvale expression of gratitude, thanks and respect, often reserved for a respectable figure such as chief, king or distinguished elderly personality. It can also be used in varied day-to-day contexts as an expression of thanks, accompanied by the traditional clapping of hands and curtsying.

As the film unfolds, it is revealed that this skilled choir is in fact the Zambia national team, the African Cup of Nations 2012 champions who have adopted the song to heighten morale and invigorate their spiritual faith while in camp and just before matches, they take it as a devout hymn to commit their sporting efforts to God’s will.

Fringing on a gloomy dirge and an uplifting spiritual the song sets the stage for a poem recited by a pensive Kalusha Bwalya (Football Association of Zambia President and, seen like before, clad in a suite gazing reflectively upon the names of the players (many of them his personal friends) and crew that died off the coast of Gabon on the monument dedicated to their honour at Heroes Acre, and as the acapella and clapping die down, Bwalya poetically recites a rendition of the tail of the Phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from ashes to triumphantly fly again. Such is the mood of the film, it lifts the viewer high and low, undulating from point to point, from grief to promise, victory and glory.

Nevertheless, according to its directors: "Eighteam" is a documentary film that narrates the resurrection of Zambia's national football team after losing 18 players in a plane crash in Gabon in 1993. The country faces an 18-year road of reconstruction until destiny makes its move: in Gabon, Zambia becomes African Champion for the first time after a long penalty shoot-out. Their destiny could no longer be denied: there were 18 penalties.”

Although it is technically segmented into several brief titles, such as A Golden Generation, Duty Calls, The Chipolopolo are back, An Era Ends, Weathering the Storm, What is Your Dream, Destiny Calls and Gear 6, it is loosely segmented into three main parts.

The first takes the viewer back to the Olympics, Seoul 1988; when a little known Zambian side humiliated a star studded Italian side 4 goals to 0 in a clean David and Goliath moment, the Italian side already had about five players in Italia Serie A from Napoli, Juventus and Milan but were no patch for the Zambians.

“They had a pattern of play we didn’t expect”, confesses Lazio and Milan legend Mauro Tassoti in the footage “[…] a football without burdens or restraint, a natural football”.
“We hardly touched the ball, I must say it was like the wrath of God” adds Ciro Ferrara his countryman who had about 500 caps between his Milan and Juventus during his on pitch career.

The footage of the 1988 match also gives a nostalgic glimpse of a younger Dennis Liwewe in the commentary box. Liwewe is in fact one of the main contributors to the narrative throughout the film.

Anyhow, in the second part, from the glorious event of 1988 the film nose dives into what is the saddest bit. The Gabon crash, it takes us into a build-up before the crash, by means of personal accounts from journalist Chanda Kristensen who was on the plane but has to stay behind when it changed route. Former Football Association of Zambia boss Simataa Simataa also gives an exonerating account that reminds us what critical role he too has played in the history of Zambian football, in the film, it is he that gives a pointed reminder to the viewers that official findings on the crash have never been made public.

Bwalya gives an emotional account of how close he was with the players that perished, with whom he had started his career; he was scheduled to meet them while playing in Europe at the time. It is Liwewe however who gives a tearful, operatic speech in some footage when he was seen on television beckoning young Zambian footballers to take up the challenge of volunteering for a new national team after Frederick Chiluba declared that the show must go on after he led the nation in mourning.  Roald Paulsen, the coach brought in to rebuild the team with the help of the Danish government also makes an appearance sharing how challenging it was to rebuild a team from scratch in 6 weeks.

The third part of the film highlights more recent events the, AFCON 2012, where Zambia emerged victorious as unexpected underdogs. But other than focus on the glory itself, it gives a touching insight into the overwhelming pressure that was on the team. Players, Christopher Katongo, Kennedy Mweene, Emmanuel Mayuka, Christopher Katongo and Hijani Himoonde share their personally experiences in fascinating conversations giving us a feel of how it felt to be in their boots.

Zambian President Michael Chilufya Sata (3rd L) touches
 the trophy with founding President Kenneth Kaunda (2nd R), 
Vice President Guy Scott (R) as members of the soccer team (back) 
and former President Rupiah Band (L) look on, 
during a ceremony at the State House in Lusaka February 14, 2012. 
(/Mackson Wasamunu/Courtesy Reuters).
Eighteam captures the essence of what drives the national team, which is what perhaps drives Zambia as a nation which is spiritual faith, teamwork, hope for the best and the ability to achieve. The film can come at no better time than this as the nation celebrates a jubilee, mourns a president and experiences a spasm of political uncertainty. It reminds us that Zambia has risen from the ashes and overcome her challenges before and this was done by working together.  It is certainly a film that Zambian’s will definitely be watching for the rest of their lives.

It premiered on the 16th of October 2014 at Fresh View Cinema’s Levy Park where it has been showing twice weekly.

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