Everyone wanted to see Cote d’Ivoire play Ghana in the African Cup of Nations final on Sunday. A heavyweight clash between the two West African giants, it held the promise of a meeting of “golden” generations. The Ivorian veterans against the Ghanaian whipper-snappers, Drogba versus Ayew, Yaya Toure against Agyemang-Badu. Everyone wanted to see it. Everyone, that is, except those who have been following the progress of a Zambian side that has lit up the tournament at every stage. They might only have one player at a top European league (winning-goal specialist Emmanuel Mayuka ), but the Chipolopolo have played the best football, scored (some of) the best goals, and produced by miles the best goal celebrations at CAN 2012. Their success hasn’t been lucky or accidental. They haven’t had an easy route to the final. They have simply been brilliant.
On Sunday they could be crowned African champions. It would be the first time a Southern African nation has held that title since Bafana Bafana in 1996.
If the Zambians take the trophy back to Lusaka, it will be a hugely meaningful victory. The last time the Zambians were this good was the late 80s and early 90s. A hugely promising young side humbled Italy at the Olympic Games in Seoul, but the entire team was killed when the plane they were traveling in crashed in Gabon en route to a qualifying match in 1993. Legendary forward Kalusha Bwalya (African player of the year 1988 and the hat-trick hero against the Italians) was the only player not on the flight, and the sole survivor. He is now the President of Zambia’s FA.
“It was written in the stars that we had to return to Gabon in order to honour the memories of the national side wiped out in 1993,” said coach Herve Renard.
“Twelve million Zambians wanted us to go the whole way to Libreville. As soon as we arrive in Libreville, we will go to the spot where the plane crashed, not far from the stadium. It is imperative we play for them, for Zambia, because it is a fantastic country.”
Pre-tournament, Zambia were rated as rank outsiders to win the tournament. A friend in Johannesburg bet R1000 on them to win the Cup before the semi-final with Ghana yesterday, and got odds of 8-1, ridiculously long for any team at the semi-final stage, and especially so for one as impressive as Zambia.
Their captain and talisman is Christopher Katongo, a bustling striker with a deadly finish and good heading ability. Orlando Pirates midfielder Isaac Chansa, TP Mazembe’s Stophira Sunzu and Free State Stars keeper Kennedy Mweene have been excellent, but it is the dazzling Emmanuel Mayuka who has really caught the eye with a series of terrific performances. A substitute in the semi-final, he must be a starter on Sunday.
One of the most free-flowing and positive teams in the tournament, Zambia are likely to deploy the same counter-attacking style on Sunday that saw them overcome Senegal in the group stage.
Cote d’Ivoire, of course, will have other ideas, but even as overwhelming favourites they will need to step up their game if they are to overcome Chipolopolo. With such a great chance at finally winning a trophy, it would be nice to see Drogba and co come out to score goals in the final, and unleash their more attack-minded players, such as Seydou Doumbia and Emmanuel Eboue, both more or less unused so far. More likely is that they will persist with a defensive formation and look to close out a narrow victory.
In truth, both the Ivorians and the Ghanaians have looked burdened by the enormous expectations placed upon them. Nervous and over-cautious, neither side has really taken the competition by the scruff of the neck, and if the Ivorians had faced Gabon instead of Mali, they might well have suffered the same fate as Ghana.