Zambia manager Herve Renard struggled to hold back the tears as he celebrated his team’s triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations final against the much-fancied Ivory Coast last night.
"I told them if we got to the final we would play in Gabon where the plane crashed. There was a special significance in that," Renard told reporters in an emotional interview following Zambia victory in a tense penalty shoot-out. "They found the strength. I don't know where."
Little under 20 years ago, when the prospect of winning Africa’s greatest prize for the very first time was little more than a pipe dream, devastation ripped through the country as a plane carrying the team to a World Cup qualifier against Senegal came crashing to the ground having departed from Libreville – the venue for Sunday’s final.
All 30 people on board, including 18 players, were killed. Emblematic of Zambia’s pain that day and indeed their triumph on Sunday night was Kalusha Bwalya, described by Renard as ‘one of the best Zambian players of the last century’.
Bwalya didn’t step onto the plane that day. As his country’s leading player he had secured a high profile move to PSV Eindhoven and was making his own way to Dakar ahead of a meeting with his countrymen that would never happen.
Once player, coach, FIFA committee member and now President of the Football Association of Zambia, the 48-year-old was swamped by the players that had just secured their country’s first ever Africa Cup of Nations final at the third attempt, in scenes on a football pitch that warmed the heart after a weekend of petty squabbles and pointed fingers.
A year after the tradegy, Bwalya led his country and a completely different side into the tournament and finished runners-up – their best result, until now.
7-8 was the final score in a penalty shoot-out that had looked destined to go on for the remainder of the dwindling night. Stopila Sunzu proved to be the hero of the day, with the centre-back stepping up after a clearly reluctant Gervinho had blasted his penalty high and wide. Cue a cathartic celebration and the release of 19 years of anguish, all centered around one man who had carried his country in their time of need.
Rainford Kalaba, who had missed his own chance to give Zambia victory but blazed his kick over after Kolo Toure had meekly placed his kick into Kennedy Mweene’s arms, in particular cut a relieved figure.
Going into the tournament there was little hint they could upset the giants of African football. This time last year, Zambia were placed at 110 in the FIFA World Rankings, while going into the tournament they had risen up to 71st. Compared to the likes of Ghana (26th in the rankings) and the Ivory Coast (18th) they were minnows not to be duly concerned about.
Even ahead of the final against François Zahoui side they were huge underdogs with some bookmakers quoting them as 8/1 to win, while the Elephants were 4/7 odds on favourites to make amends for defeat in the 2006 final.
But there were signs there was something special about this Zambian side even before the final. Victory over a much-fancied Ghanaian side once more packed with players plying their trade in Europe in the semi-finals came after wins against hosts Equatorial Guinea and a 2-1 win over Senegal in very their first game.
Renard no doubt galvanised his troops ahead of the final with his talk of destiny and with the belief that he instilled in them when they confronted their illustrious opponents on Sunday. It is no wonder he now has a job 'for life' according to Bwalya.
A sense of history beckoned Zambia, if not only by the fact that the tournament was being held partly in Gabon where the plane crashed but also that they would not play in Libreville unless they reached the final, and now they have achieved something truly special. When Didier Drogba missed from the spot during normal time it must have added to Renard and his player’s belief that this was there day.
As for the Ivory Coast, they found themselves unfortunately standing in the way of history, going up against a side demonstrated huge reserves of talent and belief going toe to toe with a galaxy of Premier League stars.
For the likes of Drogba and the Ivory Coast’s own golden generation, chances to secure the title their talent so richly deserves are fast running out, with a quirk of scheduling that means the tournament will take place next year in South Africa affording them perhaps one last chance for redemption.
But for now the story isn’t about the galaxy of stars that left the pitch downtrodden on Sunday. Before the final, the assembled Zambian squad lay flowers and memorials to those who lost their lives in the 1993 plane crash. The result at the Stade d'Angondjé, close to where the plane came down, provided an even more fitting tribute.
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