When the 2012 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) started on January 21, none of the bookmakers listed Zambia as the favourites to go all the way to the finals. This was based on the performance of Chipolopolo in the previous editions. But to the surprise of many, Zambia has gone all the way to face Ivory Coast in the final, which will be played in Libreville, Gabon, tonight (kick off 8pm).
For the 12 million Zambians, this is not just a cup final. This is a reminder of the 1993 disaster when 18 of their players died when a Zambian Air Force Buffalo DHC-5D (registered AF-319) crashed offshore near Libreville. At the time, the flight had just made a refueling stop on their way to the 1994 World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar.
According to experts, Zambia lost the finest team ever in the history of their football which was tipped to win the 1994 African Cup of Nations. After beating tournament favourites Ghana 1-0 in the semi-final in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, courtesy of Emmanuel Mayuka’s 78th minute strike, Zambians prepared for their date with destiny.
On Thursday, when Chipolopolo landed in Libreville, they paid a visit to the Atlantic Ocean site where their fallen heroes perished. It marked an emotional return for the current Zambian FA president, Kalusha Bwalya, in particular.
Bwalya was the captain of the 1993 team but was not aboard at the time of the ill-fated flight. He was in Netherlands playing for his team, PSV Eindhoven, and made separate arrangements to travel to Senegal in time for the qualifier.
The other player who missed the trip at the time was injured Charles Musonda who was playing for Anderlecht in Belgium.
“They (current squad) have the same determination, attitude and motivation like the fallen team. They have connection with the class of 93; they know history and there is no need to constantly remind them,” Bwalya said on Thursday.
Some of the players and officials could not contain themselves as they laid flowers in respect of their heroes. It was an emotional experience something which midfielder Isaac Chansa said has motivated them to lift the cup tonight.
“We’ve told each other that this is our cup. We think about the tragedy every time we go into the game. We want to give the people back home what they deserve,” said Chansa.
But Chansa and his teammates know that to fulfill their promise to the people of Zambia, they need to overcome a strong Ivory Coast side. To date, the Elephants have not conceded a goal in five games since the tournament kicked off.
The attacking trio of Mayuka, Captain Christopher Katogo and talisman Rainford Kalaba will have to be at their best to break the water-tight defence led by Kolo Toure of Manchester City.
Chipolopolo have taken everyone by surprise in this tournament with their performance and many believe that they deserve to lift the cup. They have rattled the net nine times in this year’s competition, something which has been attributed to their attacking football. Against the Black Stars on Wednesday, Zambia did not play their beautiful football but did what mattered most, winning the game.
The last time Zambia reached the final of AFCON was in 1994 when they lost to Nigeria.
The Elephants have failed to play attractive football despite the number of European stars in their side but they have soldiered all the way to the final. Led by their decorated skipper Didier Drogba, they are billed to prove that Zambians do not have what it takes to stop the intimidating West African side. Ivory Coast gaffer Francois Zahoui has been credited for putting up an organized team which looks set to end their duck having last won the competition 20 years ago.
On Thursday night, West African football analyst Mamdou Gaye told a South African TV channel that Zambia have done a fantastic job by reaching the final but said that they cannot beat the Elephants.