by ‘Ifreke Inyang
It had to be Zambia. Yes, Ivory Coast arrived the Africa Cup of Nations competition that held in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, with arguably the best squad out of the 32, but history was waiting to be made. Destiny was calling out, with a voice loud and poignant.
“We had chances to score and we didn’t take them. We did not know how to kill off the match and Zambia took confidence from that,” Francois Zahoui, coach of Ivory Coast said. “We knew it would be a difficult final, Zambia wanted the trophy like us and they were not there by chance.”
He wasn’t far away from the truth, but Zambia’s coach, Herve Renard articulated the thought better. “It was a sign of destiny, written in the sky. There was a force with us. I think God has helped us and given us strength.” It was Zambia’s first Nations Cup title and their third final, including in 1994 when Kalusha Bwalya led a makeshift squad to within one hurdle of glory.
19 years ago, 18 first team Zambian players and officials died off the coast of Libreville, on their way to Senegal, for a Nations Cup qualifying game. The only survivor from that tragedy was Bwalaya, who flew in from Holland, where he played for PSV Eindhoven. Quite befittingly, he was in the crowd that witnessed Zambia crowned as Africa’s new champions.
For over 120 minutes, it was delicately poised in the balance. Ivory Coast had dominated a larger part of the game, with their strike triumvirate of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Arsenal’s Gervinho, causing them all sorts of problems. It was Gervinho who drove into Zambia’s defence and was pulled down in the 68th minute. The referee pointed to the spot, but Drogba blasted the ball high and wide.
Zambia had a chance before the lottery of spot kicks to win it, but Katongo’s effort came off the upright, after making the slightest contact with goalkeeper Barry’s outstretched leg. However, after 14 spot-kicks, Zambia were not to be denied their place in African football history. After Kolo Toure and Gervinho missed their kicks, Stoppila Sunzu clinched an 8-7 victory for the Chipolopolo.
Renard pointed out another intriguing fact. “We wanted to honour the dead players and that strengthened us. Our first game (in this year’s tournament) was against Senegal and the team was on its way to Senegal for a match when the plane crashed. The plane crashed in Gabon and we won the final in Gabon.”
Now, that’s a story the best writer would struggle to match.