There I was; About to start the most professionally run FIFA tournament I had ever been to.
Venue: Some dudes room at uni with two massive screens, a trophy & buckets upon buckets of KFC chicken. Ultimate lads night in! Between games, I was constantly refreshing my phone for live updates on Zambia’s opening match against Senegal at Afcon 2012.
Truth be told, I was confidently pessimistic that my beloved Zambia would retain their title of “Serial Underachievers!” In European football, I’d compare us to The Netherlands; Well respected, unexpected, but won’t win squat!
‘‘How soon till we’re out?’ I thought.
Add to this a hint of mild frustration at the draw we had and our potential routes to the final which would see us face all the big guns, if we so dared. All the negativity aside, I was quietly excited.
Zambia vs Senegal
To set the scene; Senegal were pre-tournament favourites along with Ghana and the Ivory Coast. In the absence of Egypt (who had won the three previous tournaments) and the Super Eagles of Nigeria, they saw this as their trophy.
At the time, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse (both prolific goalscorers at Newcastle United) alongside Moussa Sow were among the most feared partnerships on the continent. On paper, this game was over before it had ever began. However, Zambia took a quick & impressive 2-0 lead which lasted well into the second half when they conceded 1. In the end, they hung on for a rather unexpected but well deserved three points.
Full Time: Zambia 2-1 Senegal
Zambia vs Libya
Onto the next one and along came Libya. I was amazed to see the game still went ahead in such treacherous conditions. Historically, Zambia have struggled against North African opposition. As a child, the name Hossam Hassan or Mohamed Aboutrika (both of Egypt) sent shivers down my spine.
In the end, Zambia fought hard in the conditions and came from behind twice to earn a brilliant point.
Full Time: Zambia 2-2 Libya
Zambia vs Equatorial Guinea
With charismatic French coach Herve Renard at the helm, Zambia headed into their final group match against joint hosts Eq. Guinea. This was a chance to win the group.
18 years earlier, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions took place off the shores of the co-hosts, Gabon. A plane carrying the Zambia national football team crashed into the sea killing everyone on board. The recent tragedies of Cardiff City’s new signing Emeliano Sala and the helicopter crash that killed Leicester City’s owner and others brought back reflections of that tragic day.
I was only 1 when it happened, but grew up in the aftermath of the event with the massive re-building job in the 90’s. The effects on the country were strong and the passion and emotion connected to football was understandably prominent.
Going into this game, my fear was that the emotion of the event and the dreaded home advantage would kill our momentum. Besides, I had grown up with years of Zambia almost doing something big, but eventually settling for disappointment (hence the earlier pessimism).
The game itself was tough against the tournament debutants, but in the end a lone goal from captain Christopher Katongo settled the matter. This result meant we finished top of Group A and avoided the other tournament favourites, Ivory Coast.
Full Time: Zambia 1-0 Equatorial Guinea
Zambia vs Sudan
It was straight knockout from here on. You lose, you leave!
We were pitted against the Sudanese ‘Falcons of Jediane.’ With Zambia’s ‘Copper Bullets’ firepower proving too much in the end, it was the end of another team with an animal nickname – cue all the memes about poaching. In truth, it was a fairly comfortable / convincing 3-0 win. In my lifetime, I had never seen Zambia in the semi-finals of such a huge tournament and I was too young to remember our run to the final in 1994 which ended in defeat to Nigeria. But now, the toughest test lay ahead.
Full Time: Zambia 3-0 Sudan
Zambia vs Ghana
Wow! This was it. The end of the road.. surely!
4 years earlier, I watched helplessly from the stands as Ghana systematically destroyed Zambia 4-1 in a friendly at Leyton Orient’s ground, London.
On that occasion, they had Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari & Stephen Appiah to name a few legends of the African game. This time round, they still had Muntari, along with rising stars Asamoah Gyan, Andre and Jordan Ayew. I considered them the Germany of African football – Efficient, consistent and always making it to the semi finals. Just 2 years earlier, they were on the brink of making history by becoming African’s first ever World Cup Semi-Finalists – but were denied by the hand of Luis Suarez and the foot of Asamoah Gyan. Their form had hardly dipped in the intermediate time, so this was going to be an uphill battle.
But low and behold, little Zambia [who stood NO chance – if you listened to the self-acclaimed ‘football experts’] did the impossible. Emmanuel Mayuka with the faint, followed by the perfect curling shot inside the post sent every Zambian momentarily off the planet in celebration. Wowzer!
I remember being in the minority of people celebrating that goal in the students union on campus – along with my legendary Welsh housemate and a few Nigerian fans (you know how they get on with Ghana! lol). One more win away from History!
Zambia had previously built a squad capable of beating a near full-strength Italian team 4-0 at the 1988 Olympics. But in 1993, that golden generation had been stripped away in the most abrupt and tragic of circumstances. This win was about more than just football. A nation had been brought to her knees in mourning, but now it was time to rise up and honour those who died.
Full Time: Zambia 1-0 Ghana
Zambia vs Ivory Coast
Now for the big one. The cherry on the cake.
The undeniable favourites, highest ranked team at the time, highest profile players from the best leagues in the world – meet the Ivory Coast (aka The Elephants). Even if our ‘Copper Bullets’ (aka. Chipolopolo) would strike against this lot, it would take a lot to bring these giants down.
If the semi final was a test against the most efficient and consistent team, this was a test against the absolute best in their prime.
With Didier Drogba (Chelsea) the charismatic talisman, Yaya & Kolo Toure (Manchester City), Gervinho (Arsenal) & Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) among many star names, this wasn’t just an uphill battle, but an impossible task.
I could literally go on naming players that were important members of league winning sides in top European teams. If this game was played on paper, no way did we stand a chance. Even my faint optimism at this point didn’t give me any hope.
The game itself surprised me as Zambia started off at flying speed creating many chances throughout. Didier Drogba missed a penalty during the 90 mins and the game went into extra time and then penalties at 0-0.
The most superb, intense, and gripping shootout I have ever seen – not just because it was my team involved, but everyone scored. With the score at 7-7 in sudden death, Kolo Toure (Ivory Coast/Chelsea) missed giving Zambia the chance to win it. Unfortunately, Rainford Kalaba (Zambia/TP Mazembe) did likewise and we were back to square one. This was never going to end. Then Gervinho (Ivory Coast/Arsenal) sent the ball out of the stadium with his shot (slight exaggeration, but it looked that way) giving Zambia another chance to seal the deal.
Up stepped a confident young man, Stopilla Sunzu – Already a Zambian legend no matter the outcome, singing along to the song the Zambian players had been singing throughout the shootout. A song in that moment that embodied the spirit of the team that had carried them from the bleak ashes of tragedy to the very brink of victory. As the late-great football commentator Dennis Liwewe poignantly put it; “never again will we go to Gabon and return without dignity and honour.”
Sunzu duly dispatched his penalty with ease, sending the keeper the wrong way and a nation into rapture.
Why do I love football so much, I hear you ask? For moments like these. From tragedy to triumph.
By Gome, author @ Reposed Thought
Cover Photo / Zambia vs Ivory Coast: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2100183/AFRICA-CUP-OF-NATIONS-2012-Zambia-0-Ivory-Coast-0-AET-8-7-pens–Zambia-win-tournament.html
Zambia vs Senegal: https://allafrica.com/view/match/main/main/id/0E4Jr9KiCh9Asyuk.html
Zambia vs Libya: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/16734188
Zambia vs Eq Guinea: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/16734188
Zambia vs Ghana: https://allafrica.com/view/match/main/main/id/0EAw8YEuOfjdlZAX.html