Guest Post By Charles Mafa*
Zambian fans know what it’s like to participate in the Africa Nations Cup. Their national team take part in 15 tournaments (0ut of a total of 28) so far. The team twice lost in the final: first to Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of Congo was known) in 1974 and then in 1994 against Nigeria. Despite the team’s triumph in last year’s finals, the fans are keeping their hopes low because of Zambia’s lacklustre performances since that famous win against Cote d’Ivoire. The scoreless stalemate for Zambia in a practice match against Norway has not helped matters. Preparatory matches for the team known as the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) have been far from impressive and at times the team has even looked rather chaotic. Many soccer fans and pundits had hoped for a win against Norway to reinvigorate the euphoria that had erupted in Zambia when the team won the Africa Cup of Nations last year, but instead that optimism is still waning.
The people have reasons to be concerned. The reigning African champions have not won a single match in all the friendlies that they have played so far, losing to Saudi Arabia (2-1), Tanzania (1-0), Angola (2-0) and the draw against Norway. The other source of concern is the team’s inability to score goals. From the time the team was crowned African champions, they have not scored more than two goals in a single match. These statistics have further aggravated the nation’s fears about their team’s ability to defend the trophy.
When team coach Herve Renard was asked whether he was worried about his team’s failure to put the ball behind the net after the Norway match the Frenchman gave a cheeky response. “We are keeping the goals for the Africa Cup,” he said. Renard and his charges will have to prove this when they take on minnows Ethiopia in their opening match later today in Johannesburg.
There is some consolation though because a similar pattern of results was recorded before the Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Renard has also retained 19 of the 23 players who took part in last year’s finals. Notable inclusions are Jacob Mulenga, the player who missed the last tournament due to injury, and a tournament debutant, Mukuka Mulenga, who was voted Zambian footballer of the year for 2012. These two players will add another dimension to the team that triumphed in Gabon, and Mulenga could be a solution for Zambia in front of goal. Many players in the team are still unknown to the world, but key midfield players like Rainford Kalaba, Nathan Sinkala and Chisamba Lungu have great individual skill capable of disturbing any defences in Africa. They showed this by ripping apart Ghana, Senegal and even Ivory Coast on their way to winning the trophy last year.
Team captain Christopher Katongo, the 2012 BBC African Footballer of the Year will lead his men out when the team takes to the field in South Africa. In Emmanuel Mayuka, the top scorer at last year’s finals, Zambia can look to impress. He is one player you ignore at your peril. Ask the Ghanaians, they will tell you what the Southampton FC striker is capable of doing. He broke the hearts of the Black Stars when he scored the deciding goal in the semi-finals of 2012 for Zambia to win the tie 1-0. The defence led by Stoppila Sunzu, the man who scored the deciding penalty in the final and Hichani Himonde is probably the best backline on the African continent. Sunzu is attracting interest from top European teams, notably Arsenal, and is currently in England finalising his move to Reading. Kennedy Mweene in goal is another star with plenty of experience in goal.
The Zambian team enjoy playing possession football, building from the back with short interchanges of passes. They are a deadly side when they keep the ball on the ground, always comfortable going forward and preferring to play a lone striker in attack. This might change though because it has proved ineffective in providing the much needed goals for the African champions. Chipolopolo’s strength lies in midfield where they have very creative and energetic players, and the elegant Rainford Kalaba to supply the much needed balls forward.
Most of the Zambian players are small in stature but are capable of overrunning teams like Nigeria who have muscular and strong players in built. They showed it last time when they stopped Senegal in the first round with all their big star players such as Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse in the team.
There are good reasons to be hopeful. South Africa is a second home to Zambia, as many of our players have played for PSL clubs. The team will therefore have plenty of support from both locals and Zambians living in South Africa. This team has also been together for a long time and like any settled side they understand each other very well. At club level many of the squad are either playing together at TP Mazembe or else meet every week during matches in South Africa. The team has also received adequate support from government and the corporate world, meaning there will be no internal wrangles over winning bonuses and upkeeps during the tournament.
Zambia play their first match in Afcon 2013 against Ethiopia today at 15.00 GMT.
* Charles Mafa is an award-winning investigative journalist based in Lusaka, Zambia. His personal website is The Investigator.