The outcome of AFCON 2012 final could not have been predicted but again this is the reason why football is the greatest sport on earth and arguably the beautiful game. The final was reminiscent of an English cup tie often fiercely contested between the pretender and the favourite. For many Zambians, the final was a carefully planned, well marshalled and orchestrated safari hunting expedition in Libreville. It was a complete demolition of an African football giant an event that can only be described from the Zambian perspective as a massacre in Libreville. On paper, the Ivory Coast football team had the manpower and the reputation to maul Zambia to football smithereens. The Elephants huffed and puffed but came up against a well determined, disciplined and attack-minded Zambian side.
To reach the final, Zambia went past Senegal, co-host Equatorial Guinea and Libya in group stages, Sudan in the quarters and Ghana in the semis. Zambians needed to remain consistent, disciplined and efficient while sticking to the game plan. Their final opponents Ivory Coast went through all tournament stages undefeated and without conceding a goal. Thus, right from the start, the Zambians were up against it based on those daunting statistics. In their passage to the final, Zambians methodically and efficiently dimmed the black stars and in the process re wrote the script which meant the much talked about possible final between Ivory Coast and Ghana was just another pipe dream.
For Zambians being in the final presented a very real and daunting prospect of playing against their idols such as Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and many others in Ivory Coast squad. It was a real example of a pretender against a Goliath with proven firepower. For many foreign commentators and experienced football pundits it was supposed to be a no contest, just a mere formality, a walk over and a rampage by an African elephant. The commentators believed Zambia faced not just a difficult task but an impossible mission given the quality and depth of Ivory Coast. The pundits were wrong as they never fully covered all angles and failed to grasp the depth of resolve with the Zambian side and power of belief in destiny. And indeed, after two hours of failing to separate the two teams apart it was down to the cruellest form of deciding a tie the dreaded penalty shootout. In the end the unfancied underdog with an appointment with destiny emerged victorious via (8-7 in favour of Zambia). The presumed elephant stampede was stopped by one single copper bullet just like the Teranga Lions, Black Stars and Falcons before them.
The Zambian coaching staff did a tremendous job of instilling the idea that failure was not an option and thus the adopted mantra of the Zambian national team was ‘it is our time’. I guess somewhere in there is an important lesson for all us. This lesson could be that Zambia wanted it more than Ivory Coast and thus prepared for it well and were this time ready to keep an appointment with destiny, something they failed to do in 1974 and 1994. Therefore, 12 February 2012will long be remembered in Zambian football folklore as the day when the Zambian football knights defied the odds and emerged victorious.
It is also imperative to recognise the skill and determination of the Zambia national team. For example, what they supposedly lacked in big names made up in team spirit, sense of purpose, determination, efficiency and organisation. Credit should also be given to the previous Zambian football coach Dario Bonetti who took over from the current Zambian coach shortly after the AFCON 2010. However, Bonetti was later sacked a few weeks before the tournament AFCON 2012 and replaced by Renard in his second stint as the Zambian coach. Renard’s reappointment was largely well received by all sections of the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) and the Zambian public. He is well respected by FAZ and commands the same respect among Zambian players most of whom he had worked with during the AFCON 2010 in Angola. In his first stint as the Zambian national coach he took the team to the quarter finals for the first time in 14 years. Many felt this was the best Zambia could do and would be near impossible to repeat the accomplishment with the current crop of Zambian players. However, after the qualification to AFCON 2012, the target was raised to semi-finals and possibly beyond. Renard took the challenge knowing the expectations of FAZ, and he understood the historical significance of winning the tournament and what that meant to the Zambian football team and the Zambian people. Looking back at the reappointment of Renard Zambians can smile and say definitely it was a match made in heaven.
AFCON 2012 offered an opportunity to banish the ‘nearly men’ tag for good having reached the finals in 1974 and 1994 only to lose to Zaire (Now DRC) and well organised Nigeria respectively. Playing in Gabon was much more than a game and was beyond sport it was about bringing some element of closure to tragic events of 1993 that saw the entire Zambia National Team wiped out. It is also coincidental that the current president of FAZ Kalusha Bwalya is the only surviving member of that great Zambian team of 1993. Kalusha only survived because he was based at PSV in Europe and had to make his own way to Senegal. Just reaching the final itself would have been an achievement given that Zambia was written off by many pundits around the world. Beating the favourites Senegal, Ghana and making Ivory Coast the highest ranked Africa country on the FIFA index look average should give Zambians reasons to smile for years to come.
Football in Africa is a way of life and Zambia is not an exception. Football is the country’s and the continent’s number one sport without equal. It is said the best icebreaker and quickest way to make friends in Zambia is to talk about Football. The win has definitely elevated the Zambian mood at the moment. However, it is too early to tell to what extent and whether this national wide euphoria would last. One can only hope that the victory has inspired the next generation of the Zambian sportsmen and women and beyond sports arenas. Zambians are only too aware that it is the belief in the ‘can do attitude’, sacrifice and ‘no barrier can stop me’ mentality that made it possible for national team to overcome their greatest footballing challenge in Ivory Coast and claim the biggest prize in African football. A win can change the way a country feels about itself and consequently change the country for the better. Zambian have learnt something about themselves through football and that is anything positive is possible if only you believe. The economy impact of national good feel and confidence cannot be under estimated.
Victory is a bitter sweet moment for Zambia as Gabon will forever be the scene of a tragic air crash that claimed the lives of the entire national football team. On the other hand, being crowned champions of Africa in Gabon is a perfect way to pay homage to the perished comrades and has definitely brought some element of closure to this tragic episode. To Zambians and region pundits the collective determination that brought the Patriotic Front to power in October 2011 filtered through to all spheres of Zambian life including the Zambian national team. For all the players at AFCON 2012 it was an occasion to impress potential clubs and the opportunity to ply their trade in a more lucrative and competitive domestic club leagues such as the English Premier League, La Liga, Seria A, etc. For Zambia it is an incredible occasion and a moment to savour for many years to come. At least for the time being Zambians can proudly say we are the African Champions the best team on the continent.
Mpundu Mukanga (PhD)
The author is the Executive Director of Kurgus Investment Zambia and regularly writes for the Zambian Economist