This year’s African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea was destined to produce a shock winner from the start. With the African heavyweights of Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, South Africa and reigning champions Egypt all failing to qualify for the tournament , it was widely expected that it would be either Ghana and the Ivory Coast would capitalise on this by winning the tournament. Both teams came close, but they were both undone by a country that no-one could have expected to win. That team was Zambia. They exceeded all expectations placed on them, with many expecting them to bow out in the quarter-finals. Even their eccentric manager Herve Renard said that his aim for the Chipolopolo was for them to get a semi-final berth. It is without doubt that this is the country’s finest ever achievement and this unlikely victory was built on many foundations, such as the leadership of Hevre Renard and the team spirit the team possessed. The one man who will cherish this victory more than others is the president of the Zambia football association Kalusha Bwalya, who is regarded as the country’s best ever player.
The reason Bwalya will cherish this victory more than others is due to the fact that the majority of his Zambia teammates were involved in a plane crash in 1993, which killed all 30 passengers on board. Up to this point, it looked like Zambia would qualify for their first ever World Cup and would go onto further success, with many people viewing this as the country’s golden generation. The majority of that team were in the side which got a brilliant 4-0 victory over Italy at the 1988 Olympics, and this result just goes to show the potential that side had. The 1994 African Cup of Nations saw a newly assembled Zambia team surprisingly reach the final, in which they lost 2-1 to Nigeria. The Chipolopolo also narrowly missed out on 1994 World Cup qualification by one point, but the team were national heroes to the Zambian public due to the way they coped in the aftermath of the tragic air crash. The 1996 ACN saw Zambia finish in 3rd place and the Chipolopolo qualified for five of the next six ACN’s, in which they failed to get beyond the group stages on each occasion. The 2010 ACN saw Zambia lose to Nigeria in a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final stage, this time under the management of Claude Le Roy’s former protégé Herve Renard. He left Zambia three months after the tournament to manage Angola, and he was replaced by former Milan and Roma defender Dario Bonetti. Despite leading the team to qualification, Bonetti was controversially sacked and this led to the return of Renard. This decision saw a lot of scepticism from the Zambian public as they were still angry at him for leaving them from Angola in 2010 and they thought that Bonetti deserved to lead the team at the tournament due to him getting them there.
Preparations for the 2012 African Cup of Nations didn’t exactly go to plan; this was because Renard was involved in a pay dispute with the Zambian FA and the team’s poor accommodation, which led to Renard having an outburst aimed at tournament officials and the Zambian FA for ‘not doing their job properly.’ They also had to cope with the loss of key striker Jacob Mulenga, who missed the tournament through injury. All problems before the tournament were soon forgotten as the Chipolopolo beat the highly-fancied Senegal 2-1, with first half goals by Emmanuel Mayuka and Rainford Kalaba helping them on their way. Their second game saw them draw 2-2 with Libya, with the country having to come from behind twice through goals from Mayuka and captain Christopher Katongo. They secured top spot of their group when they beat Equatorial Guinea 1-0 in their final group match, with C. Katongo getting the goal. Controversy surrounded the team again when Renard expelled winger Clifford Mulenga from the squad for refusing to apologise after breaking a curfew. Renard also at this point went on to talk about the team’s ambitions by saying "Our focus is to win the Africa Cup of Nations, it is not a holiday." The country reached their first semi-final appearance in 16 years when they defeated Sudan 3-0, thanks to goals by Kalaba, C. Katongo and James Chamanga. Many people thought this would be as far as the Chipolopolo would get, but they defied the odds again when a brilliant strike by Mayuka ensured that they beat Ghana to go through to the final of the tournament; they also had goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene to thank for the win as he saved a first-half penalty from Asamoah Gyan. The final saw Zambia pit their wits against the Ivory Coast, who were widely expected to win the tournament, and one football analyst from the Ivory Coast (Mamadou Gaye) predicted that his country would win 4-0. Didier Drogba had the chance to win the final, but he blazed his penalty over the bar, which meant that the game remained deadlocked at 0-0. This meant that a penalty shoot-out was needed, and after a succession of successful penalties, three were missed in a row. Gervinho’s miss meant that if the impressive centre back Stophila Sunzu scored his penalty, Zambia would win the competition. And he did just that by scoring an emphatic penalty, which provoked scenes of joy by the Zambians.
When midfielder Isaac Chansa said "we believe this time we are going very far in the tournament," I saw this was as a statement of over-optimism and one that was unlikely to be fulfilled. How wrong was I as this was just one of many examples of the country’s team spirit. Chris Katongo exemplified this by saying “what the country lacks in quality, we make up with in team spirit.” Katongo points out that the country isn’t as good as many of the other countries participating in the tournament; in fact, only two of the squad play in Europe, with Mayuka playing in Switzerland for BSC Young Boys and Chisamba Lungu playing in the Russian first division for Ural. This makes their tournament win even more remarkable as their final counterparts the Ivory Coast had a squad consisting entirely of Europe based players. Another factor is the leadership of Hevre Renard, whose defection to Angola in his last spell has now been forgotten due to his achievements. He has gained a reputation for a man who is a tactical expert, a good motivator and as a manager who gains respect easily through his methods, while using discipline to control the team. He has not done badly for a manager defined as a failure during his time in England as manager of the then League 2 outfit Cambridge United. The team spirit was also down to a determination to replicate the success of the team that died in that fatal plane crash, which ironically happened in Gabon, with Chansa saying “obviously when we saw that the final is going to be in Gabon, we said this is our time, because that's where our brothers died.” This saw the country gather on a Gabonese beach only a couple of hundred yards away from the accident to pray and lay flowers at the scene, but according to Kalusha Bwalya, it was to “reconnect with the past.” The penalty shoot-out also saw the country’s team spirit shine through due to the team’s continuous singing throughout the ordeal, with all players holding hands and looking happy, while the Ivory Coast team were wondering about the pitch and the touchline with a nervous disposition about them. For me, the defining picture of the tournament was seeing Herve Renard carrying defender Joseph Musonda onto the pitch to join in with the celebrations, as he was in visible distress after having to come off with 10 minutes played due to breaking his angle. This image showed exactly what the Zambia team is about; and that is the country’s brilliant team spirit and resilience.
This year’s African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea just went to prove that this tournament is one for the underdogs. It also proved that having a big reputation counts for nothing, with Senegal and Morocco enduring early exits from the tournament, while Ghana and Ivory Coast were shocked by Zambia. This year created a new group of legends for the Zambian public, with Kennedy Mweene, Stophira Sunzu, Emmanuel Mayuka and Christopher Katongo all named in the team of the tournament, with the latter winning the player of the tournament. However, the Zambian team is not based on individual success, but that of team spirit. Without this, the team would never have won the tournament as this team spirit gave the team an advantage over every team in this tournament. It is also impossible to underestimate the importance of Hevre Renard to the team, as this success probably would not have been achieved if it wasn’t for Kalusha Bwalya asking him to return to manage the Chipolopolo for a second spell. There is an expression, which says “never go back.” For Zambia, they are lucky that Renard did. This team spirit can take the Zambia team a long way, and they have a good chance of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. I will remember this winning team for a long time, but unlike many memorable teams, it won’t be for their football. It will be for their team spirit that everyone will remember this Zambia side for.
You can follow Josh on twitter @joshilan_at_btd.