BY CONOR HEFFERNAN
Many footballers can lay claim to the title of Africa’s greatest ever footballer, but few have captured a country’s heart like Kalusha Bwalya, the Zambian striker who helped lift a nation from an unspeakable tragedy. During his career, the ‘Great Kalu’ not only raised Zambia’s status amongst the footballing community but raised the nation’s hopes during times of sorrow. Although oftentimes forgotten about in Europe, Kalu is one of the most influential footballers ever to emerge from Africa.
Born in Mufulira, Zambia in 1963, Kalu spent his formative years studying and learning the beautiful game. A region known as the ‘place of abundance’, Kalu’s footballing prowess echoed his region’s richness. Combining a thunderous left foot with a cool composure in front of goal, the young striker quickly established himself as a rising star in the region. By the age of 16, Mufulira Blackpool, a local side from the region, had gotten wind of the young Kalu. Wasting little time, Kalu was thrown into Blackpool’s first team and repaid the faith shown in him with a string of impressive performances, including a goal on his debut.
This was enough to attract the attention of Zambia's most famous club Mufulira Wanderers, with whom Kalu plied his trade from 1980 to 1986. Leading the line for the nation’s leading team, Kalu flourished, becoming a regular in the side and even earning his first call up to the Zambian international squad when he lined up against Sudan in April 1983. Although a menacing forward at club level, Kalu had to wait over a year before notching his first international goal for Chipolopolo. By then he was something of a national celebrity, having won the 1984 Zambian footballer of the year award. This however, was just the beginning.
As years progressed and Kalu became a more prominent figure both domestically and internationally, his reputation grew. From the mid-1980s onwards, rumours began to emerge that European sides were interested in the promising young forward. When Belgian club Cercle Bruges came in for him in 1986, Kalu jumped at the chance to test himself at a higher level.
Football’s annals are littered with stories of promising players moving countries, and in some cases, continents, in the hope of furthering their careers. This has not always met with success and it is worth noting that in the African context, for every George Weah, there have been hundreds of lost prospects. Kalu’s move to Belgium had the potential to make or break his growing reputation; something that was clear to Kalu himself, who from his first game with Bruges displayed a level of maturity and determination rarely seen in young footballers. In his first season, Kalu finished as top goalscorer for the club and was voted as the fan’s player of the season, a feat he repeated once more in his four years with the side.
His club career ablaze with goals, Kalu truly announced himself on the world stage in the 1988 Olympic games which saw him score a hat-trick in Zambia’s shock 4-0 victory over a highly fancied Italian side. Zambia had not only beaten one of the world’s footballing powerhouses, they had run them off the pitch in a flurry of quick passes and neat touches. Few could deny the Africans deserved the victory. Furthermore, few could deny Kalu’s role in the win. Thus, when the 1988 African Player of the Year Award went to the ‘Great Kalu’, few objected.
Kalu’s exploits at the Seoul Olympics, in which Zambia eventually reached the quarter-finals, once more saw him a man of interest for European clubs and soon the time came for Kalu to join one of Europe’s truly great sides. In 1989, Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven secured Kalu’s signature. Although the late Sir Bobby Robson soon replaced Hiddink, Kalu’s place in the side was never under threat. Alongside Romario, Gerald Vanenburg and Eric Gerets, Kalu was pivotal in the Dutch side’s march to the Eredivisie title in 1991 and 1992.
1992 also saw Kalu captain Zambia for the first time. Although Zambia crashed out in the quarter-finals of the 1992 African Cup of Nations, hopes were high that the promising side would progress, both in the African Cup of Nations and World Cup. Disaster soon put such hopes on hold. Late in the evening on 27th April 1993, the Zambian football team and indeed the Zambian nation suffered a terrible loss. Leaving Zambia that evening for a World Cup Qualifier against Senegal, Zambia’s nation team boarded a flight for their upcoming game. Tipped as one of Africa’s most promising teams at the time, Zambia were in a group with Senegal and Morocco. Two tough teams, but teams that Zambia had the potential to best.
Off the coast of Gabon, Zambia’s hopes crashed into the ocean as a near full strength Zambian team died in a horrific plane crash. A moment of senseless tragedy, the disaster left the Zambian footballing community numb. A loss of immeasurable talent comparable to the loss of the Busby Babes or all conquering Torino side of the 1940s. In one evening Zambian hopes were turned to tears.
As the nation mourned, efforts were made to rebuild. Having made separate flight arrangements, Kalu had missed the ill-fated flight. One of the only surviving members of the original squad, Kalu was tasked with leading Zambia into the 1994 African Cup of Nations with a squad of young and inexperienced players. It was here that the ‘Great Kalu’ truly earned his title. Just five months after the fatal plane crash, Bwalya led a hastily assembled team to the 1994 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia.
Placed in a group with Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, few expected much from the Zambian side, especially after their opening draw with Sierra Leone. Yet spurred on by a belief that far outweighed their abilities, Zambia secured a shock 1-0 victory over Ivory Coast to progress to a quarter-final match with Senegal. Playing in a half full Stade Olympique de Sousse, Zambia once more defied the odds with a 1-0 victory over a fancied Senegalese side. Any doubts about the Zambian side were quashed following an impressive 4-0 victory over Mali in the semi-finals. It was perhaps fitting that Kalu made the scoresheet that night.
On April 10th 1994, Zambia faced Nigeria in the African Cup of Nations final. Nearly one year to the day of the plane crash, which wiped out an entire squad, an assembled cast of Zambia players led by the ‘Great Kalu’ had performed something of a miracle. To remain competitive following such a tragedy was impressive. To make a final of a major tournament was nothing short of magical. Unfortunately, the magic evaporated in the final.
Against possibly the greatest ever Nigerian team, which contained Jay-Jay Okocha, Finidi George and Rashidi Yekini amongst others, the Zambians struggled to maintain their momentum. Despite scoring after just three minutes, the Zambians were on the back foot for most of the match. Indeed, just two minutes after the Zambian goal, Nigeria levelled the scoreline with a goal from Emmanuel Amunike. Just after half time Amunike got his second of the night, ending Zambian dreams and securing Nigeria their second African Cup of Nations. Although the Zambian fairytale ended, the status of ‘Kalu’ had been heightened.
As the dust settled internationally, Kalu moved from Ajax to Mexican giants Club America, where he arguably played the best football of his career. Although America failed to secure any major trophies during Kalu’s time with the club, his influence on and off the pitch quickly ensured he was a fan favorite. Indeed, alongside Cameroonian François Omam-Biyik, Kalu was one of the league’s deadliest footballers, feared and respected by fans across the country.
Importantly, Kalu brought his rich form into the 1996 African Cup of Nations where he led Zambia to a third place finish on his way to becoming the tournament’s top goalscorer. His rich domestic and international form saw him nominated for the 1996 FIFA World Footballer of the Year, the first time a Zambian had been nominated for the award and the first time a player plying his trade outside of Europe had been considered. Although ultimately voted 12th, the award reflected the wider footballing community’s respect for the ‘Great Kalu’.
The remainder of Kalu’s domestic career would see him alternate between Mexican sides with a brief spell in the United Arab Emirates thrown in for good measure. As years passed, Kalu’s influence in Zambian football moved more towards an ambassadorial role. Yet the man who had long inspired Zambia left his nation with one last moment of magic in 2004. Acting as player-coach during Zambia’s 2006 World Cup qualification matches, Kalu, then aged 41, was presented with a dilemma. His side was drawing 0-0 with Liberia and in desperate need of a win, Kalu subbed himself onto the pitch, despite having officially retired four years previous. Whether it was an act of hubris or desperation, Kalu reminded Zambia of his talents. Late in the game, Zambia were awarded a free kick deep in the Liberian half. Up stepped the Great Kalu. Seconds later the ball hit the back of the net. It was his 147th appearance and his 100th goal for Zambia (including non-FIFA recognised fixtures).
For Zambians, Kalu was not only one of Africa’s most talented footballers. He was a symbol of what their country could offer. He was the leader behind Zambia’s emotional run to the 1994 African Cup of Nations Final and he was their idol in the 1996 Tournament. He was more than a footballer; he was an icon. Similarly, at club level, Dutch, Belgian and Mexican fans fondly remember the player who seemed to be on first name terms with the ball and could hit a 30 yard pass that would make fans’ eyes water. A footballer who dictated the pace of the game, and was deadly in front of goal. While for many Kalu is the greatest player Africa has ever produced, for Zambians he is a figurehead of the nation. Although often forgotten about in Europe, the Great Kalu’s skill, determination and influence makes him one of the most influential footballers ever to emerge from Africa.