On Sunday night, the football world witnessed one of the most romantic and inspiring stories the game has ever produced. Zambia winning the African Cup of Nations is not only meaningul as an ‘against all odds’ kind of tale, but also because the Chipolopolo achieved their greatest success in their footballing history in the same city where a generation was wiped out nearly two decades before.
Before Sunday’s final, Libreville was signicant to Zambians as the city where one of football’s greatest tragedies occurred with the 1993 Zambian air disaster, a crash which killed the entire Chipolopolo squad. This atrocity has always been the primary connotation with the Zambian national football team. However, following their heroic victory over favourites Ivory Coast in the final, Zambia will now be remembered for their glorious victory, as well as the awful events of 1993.
In truth, Zambia’s shock success was the brightest of highlights in what was otherwise a largely uninspiring tournament. A mixture of low quality matches, poor playing surfaces and empty stadiums had created a flat atmosphere for the build up to the final. The biggest disappointment, and an issue that really needs to be addressed at future ACONs, was the sparse attendances at almost every game. Ticket prices were fat too expensive for the inhabitants of Equatorial Guinea, one of the co-hosts, as the country’s average income falls well below the Five thousand franc asking price.
The story on the pitch was really about how the fancied teams, with the exception of Ivory Coast, dissapointed, and fell well below expectations. Senegal and Ghana in particular, were two teams that many expected a lot from. Although the latter made it to the semi-final stage, the Black Stars never looked convincing. Senegal’s campaign was nothing short of a disaster, losing all three games resulting in a group stage exit, along with another favourite, Morocco, and outsiders Libya, Angola, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea and Botswana.
The quarter-final stage saw the elimination of the co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, with the former being dismissed 3-0 by Ivory Coast, and the latter suffering the heartbreak of an exit on penalties to Mali. Zambia continued to catch the eye with a 3-0 victory over Sudan, and Ghana stumbled through against Tunisia, benefiting from an error by goalkeeper Aymen Mahtlouthi to secure their passage to the last four.
The semi-final lineup pitted Ghana against the overachieving Zambia, and Mali against Ivory Coast. The day’s first match saw the Chipolopolo continue their fantastic run with a superb 1-0 victory over Ghana. Emmanuel Mayuka’s late winner secured his side’s ticket to the final and sent his country into raptures. Their opponents for Africa’s crown would be the Ivory Coast, after they narrowly beat a brave Mali through Gervinho’s strike. Mali, although including players of the calibre of Barcelona’s Seydou Keita, punched above their weight and went home delighted with their third place finish, a feat achieved after beating a lackluster Ghana 2-0 in the 3rd/4th playoff.
For many, the final was a foregone conclusion. Ivory Coast had yet to concede, and scored nine goals on their way to the final. Zambia though, had the memory of 1993 as a poignant motivator. The final was a tight, uneventful affair, and provided little indication of the inspirational tale that would ultimately be created. After a goalless 120 minutes, the tie was settled on a thrilling penalty shoot-out. When Gervinho blasted his penalty over the bar, Stoppila Sunzu slotted his home to complete Zambia’s fairytale.
In a week when football headlines have been dominated by negativity, Zambia’s victory is a timely reminder of what sport is all about. Many believe their victory was ‘written in the stars’. Amongst those stars, the Zambia team of 1993 will be looking down with pride on 2012’s champions of Africa.
African Cup of Nations 2012
Runner -up: Ivory Coast
Player of the Tournament: Chris Katongo