Zambia may have destiny on their side
Romantics will watch and read the story of the Zambian football team's poignant visit to a Gabon beach with a tingling feeling on their skin as goosebumps form and a stinging in their eyes as they blink back tears. Few sporting tales cause such emotion and this one could not have been scripted any better.
Nineteen years ago, Zambia's best footballers were all killed when their plane caught fire and crashed into the sea en route to a World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar. The ocean where they perished is half a kilometre off the coast of Libreville, where the class of 2012 will play the African Nations' Cup final on Sunday. One player from generation 1993 avoided that fate. Kalusha Bwalya was travelling from Dutch club PSV Eindhoven direct to Dakar. Now, he is president of the Zambian Football Association.
Bwalya led the current crop of Zambian footballers in a moving mourning parade on Thursday. They group sang a traditional Zambian funeral song, laid down flowers and were led by their captain, Christopher Katongo, in a pray for their countrymen. According to the Lusaka Times, as the first flower was swept away by the waves, the thunder roared even louder and a ray of sunshine broke through the overhead cloud.
"You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten. We've come here 19 years after to pay tribute and to say thank you for everything that you did for mother Zambia," Bwalya said to his former team-mates. Then, he turned to the men who will take the field on Sunday. "I'm sure the boys up there will be watching."
Call it enormous expectation, call it destiny, call it one of the little miracles that make sport about so much more than a game, but this what Zambia have to play for. The only thing standing between them and a poetic ending are 11 Ivorians. Not just any Ivorians, the golden generation of the country's footballers who have their own destiny to fulfil.
With one of the most high-profile line-ups in the tournament, consisting of Didier Drogba, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and the Toure brothers, Ivory Coast have the reputation to go all the way. With a clean sheen in all five matches they have played in the tournament so far, they have shown they also have the class. The last time they went the entire tournament without conceding a goal, in 1992, they won it.
It's not the last chance for these players, because with the ANC being moved to odd-numbered years, they will have another shot next year, but is it probably their best chance. Their coach, Francois Zahoi, has emphasised that substance over style would be preferred, saying he would not even mind victory if it came "with a header from a corner in the last minute of extra time".
So far, the Elephants have done exactly what has been required of them, only in the quarter-final drilling their opposition, co-hosts Equatorial Guinea. In the last four, it was a moment of individual brilliance from Gervinho that pushed them through. Still, they have the best passing record in the tournament, are joint with Zambia on scoring the most goals and their marquee player, African Footballer of the Year, Yaya Toure, has been the front-runner in assists in the event.
A team with names such as these has immense pressure to win the tournament, having come this far and reached the final in an almost casual manner. They are strong upfront, talented in midfield and unbreakable in defence. And they have to play a team that had 40-1 odds to win before the event started, a team that have relied on hard-work and togetherness more than anything else.
Zambia's show of strength was evident in their two victories over pre-tournament favourites en route to the final - Senegal in the group stages and Ghana in the semi-final. In the latter, Zambia relied heavily on goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene who almost singlehandedly kept Zambia in the game against Ghana, pulling out sensational stops to avoid conceding.
Their coach Herve Renaud has done a remarkable job, considering he only took over the team after they had already qualified for the tournament, late last year. He has the advantage of familiarly, having coached them before, in the 2010 ANC, before leaving to take charge of Angola followed by a stint in club football in Algeria.
His substitutions have been either very clever or very careless as he left the winning goalscorer Emmanuel Mayuka out of the starting XI in the semi-final. He said he made the decision to give Mayuka some rest and was lucky that it worked in his favour on that occasion. Renaud cannot put his final hopes on such swings in fortune and will have to put on his most shrewd tacticians hat to play one of the strongest sides on the continent.
At least the one thing he does not have to be is a motivator. The only inspiration Zambia needs they got from their trip to the beach where they reminded, in the most basic of fashions, of the people they are being asked to honour. Following the tragedy, Zambia's next football team made it all the way to ANC final in 1994. The country has asked this crop to go one better.
"It's like we're in front of one big mountain," Renaud said. "We have to climb it but we don't have a helicopter and we don't have a car. We just need to have a lot of courage and to think 'yes, we can do it'. I'm one hundred percent sure we can. If a team of substitutes was able to reach the final in 1994, why not us?"