Zambia seek to honour fallen idols against Ivory Coast
The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations will reach a poignant climax in Libreville, Gabon on Sunday. If Zambia can upset the odds and beat Ivory Coast to lift the trophy for the first time, they will also pay the ultimate homage to their fallen teammates.
When Zambia take on the mighty Ivory Coast in Sunday’s final, more than a football match will be at stake.
Not only will the Zambians, known as the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets), have a chance to defy the odds against the pre-tournament favourites, they'll be looking to honour their fallen heroes.
Sunday’s final will take place in Libreville, the capital of Gabon where, on April 27, 1993 a plane took off carrying the entire Zambian national football team bound for Senegal.
Minutes later, it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone on board was killed, including 18 players of a team considered the rising stars of African football.
Even before this year’s tournament, the chance to pay tribute to the victims of the tragedy weighed heavy on the players’ minds.
“We are going to this tournament to put the souls of our fallen heroes to rest,” said Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene before the Africa Cup of Nations began on January 21.
Zambia’s star player in 1993, Kalusha Bwalya, only avoided the disaster because he had taken a different flight than the rest of the team. Bwalya, a former African Footballer of the Year, is now the president of the Football Association of Zambia and is credited with the current team’s success.
He has been stewarding the current team, first as coach and then as president, for six years. He now stands just one win away from being able to pay his former teammates the ultimate respect.
On Friday Bwalya accompanied the team to a beach near the site where the fated plane went down to pay homage to the dead.
“It is no coincidence that we are here today, we have worked hard as a team,” he said. “However, I am convinced that our dearly departed brothers who lost their lives here 19 years ago have lent us a helping hand.”
After laying flowers and singing a Zambian funeral hymn Bwalya said: “I pray that their souls may forever rest in peace and that God will give us the strength and the courage to fulfil our dreams and theirs.”
The emotion surrounding Sunday’s final was not lost on the Chipolopolo’s French coach Herve Renard, either.
“Imagine if we could lift the trophy – it would be a fantastic way to honour the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the land they loved,” he said.
Toppling the Elephants
For Zambia to lift the trophy, Renard and his team will have to pull off the shock of the tournament.
In FIFA’s world rankings Zambia are placed 63 positions below Ivory Coast. The Elephants have yet to give up a single tournament goal.
Ivory Coast were pre-tournament favourites and have lived up to that billing by navigating a route to the final, while other heavyweights such as Ghana and Senegal have fallen by the wayside.
Unlike Zambia, Ivory Coast boast players who ply their trade at some of Europe’s top clubs. Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou will line up alongside Manchester City’s brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure.
The goal that saw them beat Mali in the semi-final was scored by Arsenal star Gervinho.
The Elephants will naturally start as strong favourites but they have a reputation for choking on the big occasion after disappointing in both the 2008 and 2010 tournaments.
Despite the huge task facing, them the Zambians promise to adopt the same attitude that saw them overcome the odds to beat Ghana in the semi-finals. They will not be in awe of their opponents.
“The young players learned something against Ghana, not to fear big names. Its just 11 players against 11 out on the pitch,” said Zambia captain Christopher Katongo.
The story of Zambia has touched many neutrals who have been following the tournament. The Elephants may be stronger, but the underdogs will not be without support on Sunday.
On Saturday Ghana take on Mali in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea in the battle to finish third in this year's tournament.