Total Pageviews

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Emotional scenes marked the end of the final of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday 12/2/12, when Zambia put their name on the Africa Cup of Nations for the very first time after a pulsating game against Ivory Coast (or Côte d'Ivoire, as the nation's government prefers the country to be known), which took place in the Gabonese capital, Libreville. It was a match which went to a penalty shoot-out after a scoreless 90 minutes and extra-time. Not only that, but it took 18 penalties before Zambia were home and dry and captain Christopher Katongo was able to hoist the trophy.

It was a bitter-sweet moment for Zambians everywhere, coming as it did almost 19 years after, and just a few kilometres from the location where, a military aircraft carrying the then Zambian national team, who were due to play in a 1994 World Cup qualifier away to Senegal, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean some 500 metres off the coast of Libreville on 19/4/93, killing all 30 people on board. Most of the current Zambian squad were of primary school-age when the tragedy occurred, and honouring the memory of those who perished was foremost in their minds.

The fact that the tournament was co-hosted by Gabon (the other country hosting the tournament was Equatorial Guinea) was not the only thing adding to the poignancy of it all; the current Zambian FA president, Kalusha Bwalya, was the only member of the squad due to play in Dakar who was not killed in the air-crash. At the time, he was playing in Europe for PSV Eindhoven and was due to meet up with the rest of the squad in Senegal when he received news of the tragedy.

The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) were decimated, but a new squad was hurriedly assembled and almost qualified for the 1994 World Cup finals, only to lose to a late Moroccan goal in their final group match in Casablanca. Zambia are still attempting to qualify for their first World Cup finals.

Try as they might, those who followed the class of '93 were not as successful as those whose lives were lost, one would think, nor did they find a place in the hearts of Zambian football lovers. However, looking at the statistics, the Chipolopolo finished third in 1990 and reached the quarter-finals two years later. Those who took on the mantle of representing Zambia immediately after the air-disaster actually did their country proud, not only coming within minutes of World Cup qualification, but finishing runners-up in the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations, and winning the third-place play-off in 1996.

Zambia had come second in their first appearance at the continental finals in 1974, when they were known as the KK11 - in honour of the country's inaugural president, Kenneth Kaounda, who also attended last Sunday's game in Libreville along with the fourth president of the country, Rupiah Banda, on behalf of the current holder of ofice Michael Sata - losing 2:0 in the replayed final to Zaire after salvaging a 2:2 draw with virtually the last kick of the ball in the first match. They defeated Algeria to finish third in 1982.
The team have qualified for 15 different editions of the Africa Cup of Nations since their first appearance in 1972, and reached the quarter-final stages last time out in Angola, in 2010, so those who underestimated them should have been warned of their potential. The manager back then was Frenchman Hervé Renard, who had been in charge since May 2008. He resigned in April 2010 to take up the vacant Angolan manager's post, a move greeted with consternation by many followers of the Zambian game, some of whom claimed that he was the sort who would sell himself to the highest bidder.

In the qualification tournament, Zambia were drawn against Libya, Mozambique and the Comoros in Group C. The Chipolopolo began their campaign, with the colourful Italian Dario Bonetti at the helm, at home on 5/9/10, by putting four goals past the Comoros in Chililabombwe's Konkola Stadium and Rainford Kalaba, Fwayo Tembo, James Chamanga and Emmanuel Mayuka all getting on the scoresheet, before losing away 1:0 to Libya in Tripoli in early October 2010. Another away game, this time against Mozambique in Maputo at the end of March last year, was on the itinerary, and Zambia came away with a 2:0 win, courtesy of goals from Chamgana and Mayuka.

The return game, played at the start of June at the rather bijou Nkoloma Stadium in Lusaka, saw a 3:0 win for Zambia (a double from captain Christopher Katongo and a goal from Collins Mbesuma), on the same day that the Comoros stunned the African football world by holding visitors Libya to a 1:1 draw at the tiny Stade Said Mohamed Cheikh in Mitsamiouli. A trip to the Comoros was next on the agenda, and another away win, this time by 2:1, was booked thanks to Christopher Katongo and Mayuka, who was hitting form at just the right time, and he scored the winner with three minutes to go to spare the visitors' blushes.

It was a result which left the Chipolopolo needing just a point at home against Libya to ensure qualification for the final stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, and that is precisely what they got. A scoreless draw at the Nchanga Stadium in Chingola on 8/10/11 saw them through, a point ahead of Libya, who also ended up qualifying as one of the three best runners-up in the preliminary stages. 

In spite of the Zambian team's qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations, dark clouds had seemingly been gathering on the horizon. Two days after achieving qualification with his team, Bonetti was sacked. According to a report in the Lusaka Times, several of the players, who spoke to the news outlet on condition of anonymity, had called for Bonetti to be replaced. One of them was quoted as saying that "Zambia's qualification is not because of him [Bonetti] but it is because of the collective efforts of us players."

If Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) president Kalusha is to be believed, his organisation did not recruit Bonetti for the manager's job, but (quoted from an article on the UKZambians website) the Italian "was just handed to us as the coach and in many ways did not respond to our command. You know he respected command from a higher source which I don’t think is a good working relationship."

Kalusha did not elaborate as to who this mystical "higher source" was, but there is a reasonable possibilty that Bonetti was hired by the Zambian government; Bonetti is suing the FAZ for wrongful dismissal, to the tune of some US$1.6 million. Kalusha and the FAZ have maintained from the start that Bonetti left by mutual consent. The country's Sports Minister, meanwhile, told the presenter of a local radio programme that the FAZ should not have sacked Bonetti, and that they had only approached the government to discuss the matter after having the sacking.

The FAZ were told to find the money themselves to pay the next national team manager, who was hired several days after Bonetti's departure. The new man in charge was none other than..Hervé Renard. The Frenchman, who had had a rather undistingushed playing career, had left his post of Angola's national team manager in October 2010 due to what France Football described as (something like) "off-field concerns;" if the Wikipedia entry on Renard is to be believed, these concerns included not being paid and having difficulty obtaining a work-permit. He then headed off to manage USM Alger in January last year on a 2.5-year contract.

He stayed at USM for less than 10 months, taking advantage of a clause in his contract which would allow him to leave the club in order to take up a managerial post of a national team. Zambia came calling, and the rest has become legend.

Renard's re-appointment as Zambian national team boss on 22/10/11 created a veritable stir among local fans; some welcoming him back with alacrity, others decrying him a nothing more than a gold-digger. He had earlier admitted that it was hunger for the folding-stuff that had swayed his decision to go to Angola, and that he had regretted his decision to leave the Chipolopolo to head west. Renard signed a one-year contract with the FAZ, and although public opinion was divided over his re-appointment, the players and staff were more than happy to see him, and he was joined soon after taking office by his right-hand man Patrice Beaumelle.

The Chipolopolo played several friendlies in advance of the Africa Cup of Nations, and there was precious little for those who had opposed Hervé Renard's re-appointment (or anyone else, for that matter) to get excited about; November saw a 2:0 defeat away to Nigeria, which was followed at the end of the month by two wins in India, including a 5:0 win against the Indian national side. A 1:0 defeat away to, irony of ironies, Angola a week before Christmas was not very well received, nor was a 0:0 bore-draw in Johannesburg against Namibia. It was mixed bag of results, one which was not guaranteed to settle the nerves before the start of a major tournament.

Zambia travelled to Equatorial Guinea's second city, Bata, a couple of days before the Africa Cup of Nations kicked-off, and were drawn to play in Group A against tournament co-hosts Equatorial Guinea, plus group favourites Senegal, and Libya. Senegal and Libya were many people's favourites to progress, with Renard's men given almost as little chance of making progress as Equatorial Guinea. They also had to make do without FC Utrecht player Jacob Mulenga, who had damaged his left cruciate ligament (a year after damaging his right cruciate ligament) in a league game against Ajax, in which he scored twice in a 6:4 win for his club.

Bata was the venue for Zambia's first game against Senegal on 21/1/12, and Zambia made light of their underdog status by coming away with a deserved 2:1 win, Emmanuel Mayuka and the pacey Rainford Kalaba scoring for the Copper Bullets in the first 20 minutes. Senegal woke up in the second-half, and when Ndoye Dame pulled a goal back with just over 15 minutes to go, the nerves started to jangle, but the team pulled together to carve out a result, thanks to some gritty defending and a good display from Kennedy Mweene in goal.

Zambia's team-ethic came to the fore in their second game, which took place four days later in an absolute quagmire at the Estadio de Bata, when Libya were the opposition. In spite of the wretched playing conditions, which were ideal for any goldfish busy planning their very own Great Escape, and which saw the start of the game put back from 17:00 to 18:15, the paltry crowd more than got their money's worth with some good football and some, well, fruity tackling from both sides.

It was a see-saw affair from start to finish, with both teams going for the win; Zambia to qualify for the second round, Libya to avoid elimination after losing 1:0 to Equatorial Guinea in their first game. Ahmed Osman put the Desert Knights in front after 5 minutes, but Mayuka bagged his second to draw Zambia level on the half-hour. Osman restored Libya's advantage in the 48th minute, but Chipolopolo captain Christopher Katongo, who was having a good tournament, equalised 6 minutes later. Katongo and Co had to dig deep for the last 20 minutes or so, but they held on for a well-earned draw, which saw them all but through to the second round, at the expense of Libya, and of group favourites Senegal, who suffered a shock 2:1 defeat against Equatorial Guinea, who were appearing at their first major finals.
And so, for the Zambians, who had one foot in the second-round, it was off to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea to play the Nzalang Nacional in their own back-yard on 29/1/12. Having surprised their Senegalese and Libyan opponents, and the world at large, by coming away from their first two games with maximum points, the Equatoguineans, managed by Brazilian Gilson Paulo, needed only a draw to progress into the second round as group winners.

Much had been said and written in the run-up to the tournament about the Equatorial Guinean team and its contingent of foreign-born players who had no obvious connection with the country, or had even set foot there, but who had been granted citizenship nonetheless. Only two of the team - reserve goalkeeper Felipé Ovono, defender Colin - had actually been born there, but several of the rest of the squad were of ecuatoguineano descent. Regardless of whom the opposition consisted, Zambia needed to win the match to top the group, but a draw would have been enough for them to join their opponents in the quarter-finals, albeit as group runners-up.

With not so much riding on the result, it was hardly a surprise that the game lacked the intensity of those which preceded it, but the co-hosts were playing determinedly and with no lack of skill, while Zambia dominated much of the first-half. The occasional chance came and went in a first-half which ended scoreless, and it was more of the same for much of the second-half, until Christopher Katongo found himself faced with two defenders, but that was no problem for the man playing in China for Henan Construction. He skipped past them both before firing a low shot past the impressive Danilo in the Equatorial Guinean goal.

The Chipolopolo now had their noses in front, both in the game and in the group table, and despite late pressure from the hosts, the Zambian defence once again did not flinch. In the group's other game, Libya defeated Senegal 2:1, but that mattered not as both teams were by now eliminated from the competition earlier than either had envisaged. And so, unfancied Zambia and Equatorial Guinea's hotch-potch collective had finished first and second in the group. Who said that there are no surprises in modern football?

Equatorial Guinea's party did not last much longer as they lost their quarter-final against Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire) by three goals to nil, but they did much better than expected. Mind you, the carrot-on-a-stick which was the promise of a US$1 million payout to the squad for each win from the nation's government was a good incentive for the team to put in a creditable performance; it was also a nice sweetener in the aftermath of elimination.

Someone else whose party was over almost before it began was Chipolopolo midfielder Clifford Mulenga, who was sent home by Renard for breaching team curfew after the Equatorial Guinea game, as did three of his team-mates, John Sakuwaha, Collins Mbesi and Hichani Himoonde, who later apologised for their actions. Mulenga did not repent, however, and for that reason was left at the airport in Bata to make his way back to his club in South Africa. The Bloemfontein Celtic player, whose only contribution on the field was as an injury-time substitute against the Nzalang Nacional, told that he was never asked to apologise to Renard after his unscheduled night out on the tiles. He also alleged that Felix Katongo also took part in the late, late show, and was "shocked" that he was not questioned by Renard.

"I was never asked to apologise for going out on Monday [30/1/12] by the coach..The coach said I was a bad influence on the other players and it was in the team's best interest [sic] that I leave, and at no time was I asked to say sorry," Mulenga added. 

In an interview on South African television station SuperSport TV after the Zambian team's return form the tournament, Renard said that Mulenga "can get another chance to play for Zambia, but not under Hervé Renard. I am not in Zambia forever."

"It was not a difficult decision. We [Renard and the FAZ board] wanted to show the other players that respect was important. You have to show respect for the squad and maybe that was the first mistake, but you cannot repeat the same mistake."

Mulenga's tournament was over, but Zambia were just getting started. Their quarter-final opponents were Sudan, who had finished as group runners-up behind Côte d'Ivoire and their qualification for the knockout stages had also surprised many. They had lost 1:0 to the Ivorians in their opening fixture before drawing 2:2 with Angola and defeating Burkina Faso 2:1 (and condemning them to bottom spot in the group) in front of just 132 paying spectators. Only 200 turned up for the quarter-final against Sudan at the Estadio de Bata, which turned out to be a fairly comfortable 90 minutes as far as the Chipolopolo were concerned.

The Sudanese were appearing in the latter stages of the competition for the first time since they won the competition back in 1970, but were never really in the hunt. Stoppila Sunzu opened the scoring for the Zambians on the quarter-hour with a near-post header, but despite looking in control for much of the first half, they were unable to add to their advantage.

In the 66th minute, however, Sudan's Saif Eldin Ali Idris Farah upended Rainford Kalaba in the penalty-area with what could charitably be called a clumsy challenge, for which he received a second yellow card. Christopher Katongo took the spot-kick, and although Sudanese 'keeper El Hadi Salim Akram saved well, Katongo scrambled the rebound over the line and it was all over bar the shouting. James Chamanga finished matters with a delightful curler from the edge of the area four minutes before time to send Zambia singing and dancing their way into the semi-finals, where Ghana would provide the opposition.

The Black Stars, who were counted as being among those most likely to win this edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, had more or less spluttered their way to the latter stages of the competition despite coming top of their group and luckily defeating Tunisia 2:1 in a bad-tempered quarter-final which was probably worthy of a blog all of its own(with most of the spiteful action coming from the Tunisians in extra-time), would provide the opposition.

The semi-final between Zambia and the Black Stars, which was played in Bata on 8/2/12, was preceeded the day before by a gesture from a Tanzanian businessman, Azim Dewji, who donated US$11000 to the Zambian team's collective purse, and a pledge to donate US$300 to each widow of the players who died in the Libreville air-crash in 1993; it was a gesture which drew wide acclaim from Zambian society in general.

However laudable, the gesture was only conditional on Zambia beating Les Éléphants and it seemed to completely ignore the widows (or families) of the other twelve people - among them were the Zambian team's coaching staff - who perished in the tragedy. They have constantly been dismissed by the media as being irrelevant, or so it would seem.

In 2002, the Zambian government eventually paid out some US$4 million to the families of the bereaved via a complicated compensation payment system, which involved the age of the deceased, plus their work experience and what they could have expected to have earned if they had reached the age of 65. Although an official report from the Gabonese government, dating from 2003, listed pilot error and mechanical failure as probable causes of the air-crash - the plane actually belonged to the Zambian Air Force and was reputed to have been in a state of some disrepair - 19 years on, no Zambian government report has yet been published. A report is due, according to reports, but nobody's holding their breath.

Back to matters football, and the semi-final, as one might have expected, was a tense, tight affair, played before a sparse crowd at the Estadio de Bata. Ghana were overwhelming favourites, and started the game as they meant to go on. They were awarded a penalty after 8 minutes, when Davis Nkausu and Kwadwo Asamoah more or less just bumped into each other in the Zambian penalty-area. Asamoah Gyan took the spot-kick; however, he could only watch as his penalty was well saved by Kennedy Mweene.

Ghana dominated the first half, and Gyan, among others, missed opportunities to put his team in front, while Zambia looked rather dangerous on the few occasions they were able to get forward, with James Chamanga putting his effort wide of the post. The pattern continued in the second half, but the Ghanaians were finding it hard to get through the Chipolopolo defence, and when they did, Mweene was in impervious form.

It was turning into one of those games when it looked as though just the one goal would win it, and it came in the 78th minute..from Zambia's Emmanuel Mayuka, who turned on a sixpence on the edge of the area, and his curled shot went in off the base of the right-hand post. A lovely finish; one which, despite frantic Ghanaian attempts to break Zambian resistance in the closing stages (which also saw a second yellow card for Ghana's Derek Boateng with six minutes left on the clock), was enough to separate the teams and send the underdogs through to the final for the first time since 1994, and for only the second time in the country's history.

There were jubilant scenes in the stadium, and joyous celebrations in Zambia itself followed, but these turned sour as at least seven people were reported to have died and around 50 injured as a result of road accidents and assaults. Many African publications (especially those from outside Zambia itself), meanwhile, seemed to focus as much of their post-match attention on reports that prostitutes were getting in on the act by offering free sex to passers-by in Lusaka as to what had happened on the field of play. No matter, that would soon change..

1 comment:

  1. Hi, great piece I enjoyed reading it. Looking forward to Part 2. Like the depth of information that you have provided for the reader which makes a great backdrop for the story.