Monday, 20 February 2012

African Cup of Nations Review

Published in Gair Rhydd on 20/02/2012.

There are some sporting moments that an ill-timed ITV commercial break can not ruin. Despite the decision that an Australian alcohol promotion was more screen-worthy than eccentric manager Herve Renard carrying an injured player to join his team's celebrations, Zambia's Nations Cup victory restored faith in the game after a torrid period.

All too often viewed outside of Africa as an inconvenience due to its mid-season scheduling, the continent's premier football competition has won the affection of fans worldwide in the past month.

That Zambia, 40-1 outsiders at the start of the competition, could emerge victorious is a story in itself. However, the symbolic significance is clear for all to see.

In 1993, 18 members of the Chipolopolo team were killed as their plane crashed off the Gabonese coast ahead of a World Cup qualifier. 19 years later, with Gabon a co-host, the disaster was at the forefront of Zambian minds.

However, the draw dictated that the only way Zambia could play a game in Gabon would be to reach the final. With a new manager, an injury to the important Jacob Mulenga and a group draw with Senegal, a fairytale seemed unlikely.

Fielding a squad of African-based players, Zambia defeated Senegal 2-1, before a 2-2 draw with Libya and a narrow 1-0 victory over Equatorial-Guinea saw them finish top of their group. A 3-0 quarter-final victory over Sudan followed, to set up a clash with a Ghana side who won the affections of so many in the World Cup.

Every success story has heroes and this was to be no different. Kennedy Mweene is not a textbook goalkeeper, but has bravery in abundance. In the semi-final, he saved an Asamoah Gyan penalty, before Emmanuel Mayuka came off the bench to win the game at the death.

As the Zambian squad moved to Gabon for the final, they attended a beach ceremony at the nearest mainland spot to crash site of 1993. Against all the odds, the reserve side fielded in the Nations Cup a year after the disaster finished as runners-up. Renard's side were to go one step further.

Didier Drogba blazed a penalty over the bar, before a penalty shoot-out was required to crown a winner. Ivory Coast did not concede a goal in the tournament, yet were defeated in a high-quality spot-kick contest. During the shoot-out, the Zambians could have been forgiven for doubting what was considered to be their destiny. Mweene saw a save disallowed as he strayed a matter of inches from his line, before a potentially decisive penalty was sent over the bar as the Zambian players broke into song on the halfway line. However, after Gervinho's miss, Stoppila Sunzu kept calm to give Zambia the most poignant of victories.

There were other stories in this tournament. Co-hosts Equatorial Guinea knocked out Senegal, before Gabon removed Morocco. Zambia's story can not be overshadowed, however, as they knocked out the three favourites on their way to victory.

19 years after the darkest day in Zambian football history, Renard's men have paid the ultimate tribute.

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