Zambia's Nations Cup triumph 'written in the sky'
Sometimes sport throws up stories of human spirit that you cannot help but watch with a warm smile - as Zambia's first-ever Africa Cup of Nations success did on Sunday.
The triumph, taking place in the same country as the side's devastating tragedy in 1993, may have disappointed Ivory Coast fans, but any neutral can only marvel at the southern Africans' fairytale win - a mental and sporting triumph which beat the odds in similar fashion to the European titles of Denmark (1992) and Greece (2004), or that of Iraq's 2007 Asian champions.
Rank outsiders to win this competition, the Zambian squad repeatedly cited the devastating air disaster that killed 18 of their national team off the coast of Gabon 19 years ago as an inspiration to do well - a mission statement that even their own fans struggled to believe at first.
Lest we forget, the Chipolopolo don't even have a proper home after Lusaka's main stadium was declared unsafe a few years back while they also travelled to the Nations Cup with an injury to key man Jacob Mulenga, one half of the country's entire Europe-based contingent.
Zambian players hold up a banner commemorating the Chipolopolo players, coaches and officials who died in the 1993 air disaster off the coast of Gabon
As many of you will already know, the 1993 tragedy took place en route to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal, with an old military aircraft exploding into the sea shortly after refuelling in the Gabonese capital Libreville.
When the Nations Cup draw was made last October, it transpired that because Zambia were to be based in Equatorial Guinea - the co-hosts - the only way they would get to play a match in Gabon was if they reached the final.
This seemed most unlikely. The Chipolopolo were 40/1 to win the competition, one of their best players was injured, they had just changed their coach and they were up against a highly fancied Senegal side in Group A.
But what could have seemed an insurmountable obstacle was viewed as a mere trifle, with many in the squad seeing the match-up with Senegal as a sign of destiny for a delegation led by Kalusha Bwalya, who only missed the ill-fated 1993 flight because he was playing in Europe at the time and travelled to the match on his own.
"Our first game was against Senegal and the team was on its way to Senegal for a match when the plane crashed," said Zambia coach Herve Renard, who dedicated the title to Bwalya.
"The plane crashed in Gabon and we won the final in Gabon. It was a sign of destiny, written in the sky. There was a force with us. I think God has helped us."
In 1994, Bwalya improbably inspired a team of one-time reserves to the most unlikely place in a Nations Cup final as a newly constructed side relied upon team spirit to finish runners-up. Nearly two decades on, that same emotional courage delivered unforgettable success.
But crucially, Zambia also had a talented team to back up that courage - for all the understandable talk, there is otherwise surely only so far mental strength can take you.
Despite accommodation problems and boasting a squad of Africa-based players, the Chipolopolo tore apart the Senegal of Demba Ba, Papiss Demba Cisse and Mamadou Niang in their opening game, winning 2-1 after blitzing a ragged defence with some thrilling free-flowing football.
The rollercoaster had begun, with Rainford Kalaba, Emmanuel Mayuka and captain Chris Katongo looking an exciting frontline.
After a 2-2 draw with Libya and a 1-0 win over their Equatoguinean co-hosts, Zambia topped Group A to avoid a quarter-final clash with favourites Ivory Coast. Instead they met, and defeated, Sudan 3-0 in the first match to be played at the finals after the Port Said disaster in Egypt, with the minute's silence for the victims of that tragedy no doubt providing a further moment of reflection for the Zambians.
Remarkably, the Chipolopolo were through to the semi-finals but their problems were hardly at an end - World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana lay in wait. Renard trotted out the old line about his team being under no pressure while Black Star Sulley Muntari dismissed the Frenchman, who worked with the Ghanaians during the 2008 Nations Cup, as just a physical trainer.
But a man who started out coaching amateur sides at the weekends, while running a cleaning company in the week, had the last laugh, keeping Switzerland-based Mayuka - a player attracting the attention of many European clubs - on the bench until late in the second half, before he grabbed a glorious winner.
Only now could the Zambians fly to Gabon, where the delegation wasted no time in honouring the fallen heroes of 1993, holding a special ceremony shortly after landing on the nearest mainland spot to where the plane had come down just half a kilometre away.
Kalusha Bwalya (in suit) is flanked by Sports Minister Chisimba Kambwili (left) and national captain Chris Katongo (right) at Thursday's beach ceremony, while coach Herve Renard (far left) keeps to the sidelines
Back in 1993, a crowd of 100,000 lined the streets for the state funeral of the players - their coffins draped in national flags - as a country mourned, emotions best exemplified by the moving eulogy of veteran Zambian commentator Dennis Liwewe.
In the run-up to the final, the BBC spoke to Freeman Chabala, whose goalkeeper father Efford Chabala died in the Gabon disaster, and even though winning against Ivory Coast on Sunday would not bring his father back, Freeman said he believed it would close a chapter.
"[The final] is bringing the memory of our fallen heroes - our parents - to mind," he said. "The players are there to represent us and we are all counting on them, so I expect them to do their best so that they can finish the job."
They did and in the most dramatic fashion, as Didier Drogba missed a spot-kick in regulation time before an absorbing, albeit goalless, final went to a penalty shoot-out, won by Zambia, thanks in no small part to goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene (who scored one himself during the shoot-out).
It was the final twist in a tournament full of them - led by Equatorial Guinea knocking out Senegal, before fellow co-hosts Gabon did the same to Morocco in the game of the finals.
Zambia had done it the hard way and the best way, playing the most expansive football at a finals where they beat the three favourites - Senegal, Ghana and an Ivory Coast side who were desperately unlucky to lose the tournament without conceding a single goal.
Opportunities will arise for the skilful Kalaba and Mayuka, formerly linked with Newcastle United and whose potential arrival can only be helped by Zambia's impending rise above the English work permit threshold of 70th place in the Fifa rankings.
While the players and an emotional Bwalya celebrated, fans back home freely admitted they had never expected the success - with some supporters going to pray on Monday at the graves of the 18 players.
"We wanted to win the trophy so those who died may rest in peace," said winger Felix Katongo, before boarding the plane home in Libreville, at the very airport where the fallen heroes last set foot on the ground. "Now their souls are at peace."
At long last, Zambian football has entered a new era.