Football, like all sport, can be replete with false grandeur and maudlin sentiment, but occasionally it renders up a truly poignant and transcendent story. This year’s Africa Cup of Nations final does just that.
On Sunday, pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast will face a team few predicted would make a serious challenge for Africa’s continental championship. But Zambia’s ascent to the Nations Cup final is much more than your run-of-the-mill footballing Cinderella story.
The last time Zambia made it to the ultimate match contesting the African championship, in 1994, it was a bittersweet occasion. The Zambian national side of the late 1980s and early ‘90s were a remarkable success story, one of those happy instances of a talented generation coming of age together at the right time to create a team capable of making a mark far beyond their presumed limitations.
They came flamboyantly to the world’s attention at the 1988 Olympic Games, where they crushed a daunting Italy side 4-0 to reach the quarter-finals. For a nation of eight million in Southern Africa — far from the traditional footballing powerhouses of West and North Africa — it was a stunning feat; and more important, it was no fluke result, whatever the Italian press may have wanted to believe.
Two years later, Zambia captured third place in the Africa Cup of Nations, and by 1993, the national side had qualified comfortably for the following year’s Nations Cup and found themselves in serious contention for the 1994 World Cup finals.
In the final round of World Cup qualifying, having already notched a win over group favourites Morocco, Zambia were due to face Senegal away when indescribable tragedy struck. The plane carrying most of the domestically based players on the team to Dakar crashed into the ocean just after take-off from a stop-over in Libreville, killing all aboard.
As fate has it, Libreville will be the setting of Zambia’s emotional catharsis. After beating heavily favoured Ghana in the semi-finals, Zambia booked their place in the final — their first and only match in the Gabon capital this tournament, their draw having until now kept them in co-hosting neighbour Equatorial Guinea.
Zambia coach Hervé Renard told a press conference after the semi-final victory: “We could only get to Libreville by reaching the final, so we did it. It’s written in the stars that we had to return to Gabon to honour the memories of the Zambia national team that perished in 1993.”
The heart-stirring circumstances make Zambia sentimental favourites to win their first ever international trophy; but footballing reality puts them firmly in the underdog role. Ivory Coast, featuring such world-class players as Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré, have had their name virtually pencilled in as champions since before the tournament began.
The road to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations was rife with twists and turns, with perennial favourite Egypt and traditional African powerhouses Cameroon and Nigeria all failing to qualify. Their absence heavily tipped the odds that Ivory Coast, consistently one of Africa’s strongest sides but dogged with under achievement, would overcome their 20-year trophy drought.
Yet Zambia have more than sentiment on their side. It took more than fortune and good wishes to upset another pre-tournament favourite, Senegal, in their opening match, and to overcome World Cup 2010 quarter-finalists Ghana in the semis.
And Ivory Coast, for all their depth of talent, do still need to contend with the apparent psychological barrier that has so often prevented them from reaching their full potential. Entering the final as firm favourites to win against unexpected opposition, who are relative minnows in footballing terms but embraced by the crowds, will be a test of the Ivorians’ mental mettle.
And that could easily be the edge Zambia need to offer the most fitting of tributes to their predecessors.
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