Right from the onset of the 2012 Confederation of African Football(CAF), African Cup of Nations(AFCON) hosted by Equitorial Guinea and Gabon, followers of African football can attest to zeal and commitment of the 'Chipolopolo,' the Zambian national team. Though they played good football but many lovers of African football never believed that the uncolourful side, lacking big players and stars would make it to the finals of the competition not to talk of lifting the trophy; outwitting the tournament favourites, Ghana and Ivory Coast who are strong forces in African football.
Like their name, 'chipolopolo' which means copper bullets.The Zambian players who are little known, except for their long standing dedicated captain, Chris Katongo(Most Valuable Player of the 2012 AFCON), pelted the Ghanain and Ivorian teams with bullets, even 'shooting out' the biggest African players such as Asamoah Gyan, John Mensah, Didier Drogba and current African footballer of the year, Yaya Toure in the semi-finals and finals of the competition. The Zambian footballers had played together for several years, the likes of Chris Katongo, Kennedy Mweena, Joseph Musonda, Rainford Kalaba, Clifford Mulenga and others having played in the last four CAF African Nation's cup.This enabled them to understand themselves and play as a team instead of appearing as a disjointed side with players of individual brilliance.
Indeed, this underdog players proved book makers and analysts wrong. They do not need to be playing top-flight football in Europe and parade six figure earning players who have won many laurels before they can get to the top of African football.
While their story is a testimony of dedication, determination and a 'never say never spirit,' the pains that entire Zambian nation felt in April, 1993 after they lost a generation of promising footballers of the national team in an air crash soon after the air craft conveying 30 passengers including 18 players exploded after taking off from a stop in the Gabon capital of Libreville en route a world cup qualifying game with Senegal. 19 years after, the memories of the huge loss was still at the back of the mind of Zambians including the chipolopolo players, many of whom were school boys when the sad event occurred.
Zambia played all three group games, plus its quarterfinal and semifinal of the 2012 AFCON in Equatorial Guinea. They needed to get to the finals in order to play in Libreville, Gabon, just miles away from the spot where they lost their 1993 squad.
“There was just something about it,” goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene said. “With the tournament being here in Gabon we wanted to take part to honor those who were lost to our country. That made it extra special.”
“We could only get to Libreville by reaching the final, so we did it,” Coach Herve Renard told the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson after an upset 1-0 win against Ghana in the semifinal. “There is something written that we have to go to play to honor the memories of the Zambia national team that died in 1993. It was catastrophic for the nation. The 12 million people of Zambia are waiting for us to go back to Libreville; immediately after we arrive, we will go to the place.”
And the Chipolopolo of Zambia, not only played in the finals of the 2012 AFCON in Libreville, Gabon; they took out time to visit the site of the 1993 crash, said prayers, laid flowers and derived some strength. To cap it all they lifted the the trophy of the competition that shows the best of African football. They wiped the tears their nation shed 19 years ago by tenaciously playing out their hearts on the pitch and wining after a penalty shoot out with Ivory Coast.
“This is magical, magical,” yelled striker Emmanuel Mayuka, one of only two Zambian players to ply his trade in Europe. The players knelt down forming a circle, sang praises and offered a prayer of thanksgiving immediately after they emerged victorious in the penalty shootout. Coach Renard carried injured Joseph Musonda in his arms from the sides and placed him beside other players to join in the prayers. Musonda shed tears when substituted in the early minutes of the finals after he sustained an injury. It was the most important game in his long standing career.
The players celebrated and hugged their mentor and 1993 veteran Kalusha Bwalya(the only member of the 1993 squad whose life was spared because he chose to fly from his base to join the squad for the game before the ill-fated air crash), now president of the nation’s soccer federation.
In one of the most touching moments of the final, Zambian coach Hervé Renard gave his winners medal to Zambian FA president Kalusha Bwalya. The Football Association of Zambian(FAZ) president, Kalusha Bwalya had implemented a long term vision, poling players from the under 20 and Under 23 sides to form the core of players of the future. He was undaunted by first round eliminations in the 2006 and 2008 AFCON. Today, his original four year plan for success has paid off.
Goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene of Free State Stars in South Africa, strikers Emmanuel Mayuka of Swiss side Young Boys and CAF Player of the tournament Christopher Katongo from Henan FC in China were named into the team. TP Mazemba defender, Stoppila Sunzu was also named in the team. Mayuka also won the 2012 Africa Cup top scorers award on three goals based on assists.
The Zambian national football team moved 23 places up in the current Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) ranking to the 43rd in the world and 4th in Africa behind Ivory Coast, Ghana and Algeria.
Indeed the victory of the Chipolopolo of Zambia would remain one of those magical moments in African football.
Picture, courtesy: Associated Press