For many soccer fans in Malawi if asked to mention any tragedy that ever occurred in the history of international soccer in Africa, they will be prompt to mention the loss of the entire Zambia National Team squad in a plane crush on the evening of the 27th April 1993 in Gabon en-route to Senegal for a World Cup qualifier.
Most may not be aware that actually six years before Zambia experienced that plane tragedy, on 13th December 1987, their own national soccer team called the Flames had encountered a tragedy in Eritrea that is probably the worst in the history of the Flames.
In August 1987, the Flames had won a bronze medal at the 1987 All Africa Games in Kenya where they clobbered the heavy weights in African soccer such as Senegal, Cameroon, and Egypt with Lawrence Waya clinching a golden boot as top goal scorer at the tournament with 5 goals.
It was after this brilliant performance at the All Africa Games under coach Rueben Malola that four months later, the Flames traveled to Eritrea (then under Ethiopia) in December 1987 to participate at the 1987 Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) tournament where a tragedy occurred for the Flames forcing them to withdraw from the tournament.
The Flames and Kenya were the favorites at the 1987 CECAFA tournament in Ethiopia having just scooped bronze and silver medals respectively at the All Africa Games held in Nairobi. During the first assignment for the Flames against Zimbabwe on 13th December 1987 in the city of Asmara, the then Football Association of Malawi (FAM) Chairman Mc. Ewen Kumichongwe suddenly collapsed.
He was pronounced dead a while later at the hospital where he had been rushed straight from the stadium. Other sources indicate that cardiac arrest was the cause of his death. The Flames drew against Zimbabwe 1-1 following an equaliser from Lawrence Waya which was delivered with a header beautifully converted from a corner kick by Holman Malunga.
The Flames immediately returned home while mourning the passing of Mc Ewen Kumichongwe who had led the Flames’ delegation to Eritrea. When the Flames touched down at Chileka Airport, the remains for Kumichongwe had already jetted in. From the airport, the entire squad went straight to Kumichingwe’s home in Zomba.
Zimbabwe which had played against the Flames in the first game proceeded to reach the finals in which they lost to the host Ethiopia 4-3 (post-match penalty shoot outs following 1-1 draw) on 27 December 1987. Kenya as the remaining favorite side after Flames withdrew from the race, were booted out in the group stages and packed for home.
The following year, it was Malawi’s turn to host the 1988 CECAFA tournament. The Flames lifted it for the third and last time after beating Zimbabwe 2-0 in a replay semi-final match at Civo Stadium in Lilongwe on 17 November 1988 and then hammered Zambia 3-1 in the final match on 19 November 1988 at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre.
This was a revenge for the bitter loss in another CECAFA cup final held four years earlier on 15th December 1984 in Kampala (Uganda) which Zambia won 3-0 during postmatch penalty shoot outs (after 0-0 draw) to become CECAFA champions for the first time.
On 19th November 1988 when Flames hosted and won the CECAFA after the tragedy in Eritrea 11 months earlier, Chief Justice Richard Banda (retired) had been appointed by the Life President of the Republic of Malawi Dr. Kamuzu Banda to replace Mc Ewen Kumichongwe as FAM Chairman.