Zambia – Champions of Africa

Eighteen years after eighteen of Zambia’s footballers were killed off the coast of Libreville, Stippola Sunzu scored the eighteenth penalty of a marathon shootout to win his country their first ever Africa Cup of Nations.

During the shootout the Zambian players could be heard indulging in communal singing in support of their team-mates as they faced the dreaded walk to the penalty spot. It was this team-ethic that had seen Zambia storm towards the final. This sense of teamwork and fighting for one another stretched from the pitch all the way to the touchline as the wonderful Hervé Renard became a virtual 12th man during their battles to the final.

Renard has come a long way since his unsuccessful stint as manager of Cambridge United (it’s interesting to note at the time the Cambridge board wanted to replace him with Dion Dublin, a man who has become more famous for inventing his own musical instrument than his managerial abilities since), and has come even further since he ran his own business cleaning offices in Paris. His screams of “MAYUNKAAA!”, directed at eventual winner of the Golden Boot, via virtue of assists, Emmanual Mayunka became a running amusement amongst fans on twitter during the tournament.

His methods may have often seemed unconventional, during the final he could be heard shouting for his supposedly less illustrious team to “keep the ball on the floor”, whilst he also only used two of his three permitted substitutes despite an enregy sapping period of extra time. However, no one can dispute his decision making skills after this magnificent victory.

Incredibly in the minutes after the cup was awarded Renard managed to enhance his reputation further. Firstly by carrying injured fullback Joseph Musonda down the touchline to allow him to join in the celebrations with his ecstatic team-mates, Renard’s white shirt gleaming under the Stade d’Angondjé floodlights. Secondly, by giving his medal to Kalusha Bwalya, the head of the Zambian FA. Bwalya is considered Zambia’s greatest ever player and was a part of the ’93 squad that were tragically killed in the plane crash, but was luckily not on the plane as he was heading back to his club in Europe. If you’re after symbolism and stories, there are few games of football that will ever match this one.

The game was littered with moments of sportsmanship, from Didier Drogba consoling the tearful Musonda after he had to be substituted early on (Drogba remains a legend and a much loved figure in Africa despite his image in the UK) to Ivory Coast’s goalkeeper Boubacar Barry shaking the hand of fellow keeper Mwenee after conceding a penalty during the shootout. The final was a much needed tonic for football’s soul after a sour weekend of Suarez/Evra hand-shake shenanigans.

For all the talk of Ivory Coast’s golden generation of Didier Drogba, the Touré brothers, Solomon Kalou and Gervinho it was the ‘Copper generation’ of Zambia that truly deserved their victory. They had seen off African heavy-weights Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast to win the cup whilst the highest ranked side the Ivorians had met during the competition were Burkina Faso (ranked 14th in Africa).

Furthermore the Zambians contained a side with only three or four players who play outside of Africa, and only two who play in Europe (one in Switzerland and the other in Russia). For many this may be a surprise, but a quick glance through the history books shows that each winning squad from the last five Africa Cup of Nations (Egypt 3, Tunisia 1, Zambia 1) has been based primarily in Africa. You have to go back to Cameroon’s victory of 2002 to find a squad that was based mainly in Europe.

It will be interesting to see whether sides packed with European stars like Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast change their method because as the wise man once said:

All that glitters is not gold, sometimes, just sometimes, it’s copper.

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