Zambia is not at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, having finished a distant second behind group winners Nigeria in the qualifiers. In fact, the only time the country had a realistic chance of making it to the World Cup was in 1993 during the qualifiers for USA 94, when the country missed qualification by the skin of their teeth and the officiating of one Jean-Fidele Diramba.
1993 will forever be known as the year Zambia suffered her worst footballing tragedy. On April 27, 1993, the plane carrying the Zambia National team to a World Cup qualifying match against Senegal, crashed off the coast of Gabon killing all on board including players, officials and crew. Once the mourning period was over, Zambia’s rebuilding efforts had seen its new team defy odds and top its World Cup qualifying group with only one game to go.
Zambia dared dream. A fairy-tale run to the World Cup was on the cards. Surely this was Zambia’s year.
The only team standing in Zambia’s way was Morocco. And even then, Zambia had cause to be optimistic having beaten Morocco 2-1 when the sides had earlier met in Lusaka. The stage was set and hopes were high going into the decider in Morocco with Zambia only needing to avoid defeat in order to seal a maiden World Cup appearance.
Prior to Zambia taking the field, local media in Zambia had expressed concern regarding the choice of match official. They noted Jean-Fidele Diramba tasked with officiating the match was Gabonese and at the time there were all manner of conspiracy theories surrounding the plane crash that killed the Zambia National Soccer team, with relations between Zambia and Gabon strained.
But then football, as Sir Alex Ferguson once observed, can kick you in the teeth when you least expect it. Zambia lost the match, thanks to a thumping header from Abdeslam Laghrissi in the 62th minute.
Back home in Zambia however, all the talk was about the shocking officiating by Diramba. On the Tuesday following the match, thousands marched to the Football Association in Lusaka to demand that Zambia petition FIFA for a rematch, a petition that depending on who you believe was never actually delivered.
The name “Diramba” has since acquired pantomime villain status in Zambia. When I was in primary school, our local football referee was called “Diramba.” To this day there is a smattering of “Dirambas” officiating at various levels of the Zambian game.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons Zambians might not support Morocco at the on-going World Cup [Morocco has since between knocked out of the 2018 World Cup in Russia after losing their first two of three group matches—Ed.]. There is also the added spice that Morocco are currently managed by Herve Renard, the Frenchman who masterminded Zambia’s Africa Cup triumph in 2012, in Gabon. It clearly isn’t the first time when Zambia’s loss has been Morocco’s gain.
The only Zambian to take the field in Russia, is referee Janny Sikazwe. Here is to hoping he doesn’t turn out into a Diramba.