By Kent Mensah
Zambia is in a state of ecstasy. The Chipolopolo are the gallant winners of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, which took place in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea – coincidentally, the venue that last witnessed their heroes before the tragic death of 18 players in a plane crash 19 years ago on April 27, 1993.
The victory was historic. It is the first time that the southern Africans will return home with the ultimate prize after 15 appearances in the continental flagship competition.
The 2010 quarter-finalists lifted the trophy at a time when nobody expected them to win. It was a well deserved victory which came about not by fortune, but via camaraderie and determination on the part of a well-motivated group.
The Zambians began writing their now historic script in the 2012 tournament with a 2-1 group win over a highly-rated Senegal side. Having progressed through the group stages and defeated Sudan in the quarter-final, the 1994 runners-up kept their composure and went on to shoot down another favourite in the form of the Black Stars of Ghana at the semi-final stage.
|ZAMBIA'S ROAD TO GLORY
||Zambia 2-1 Senegal
||Zambia 2-2 Libya
||Zambia 1-0 E. Guinea
||Zambia 3-0 Sudan
||Zambia 1-0 Ghana
||Zambia 0-0 Cote d'Ivoire (8-7 penalties)|
Coach Herve Renard knew his charges had to be calm and collected in order to beat an Ivorian side starring English Premier League and European-based stars.
Zambia's inspirational captain Christopher Katongo, along with Emmanuel Mayuka, Isaac Chansa and Nathan Sinkala were outstanding, and constant menaces to the Ivorian defence. The quartet strung their passes together neatly, forcing the 1992 African champions to adopt a different attitude towards the game, and keeping them under pressure from the word go. They posed a threat from their well-worked set-pieces, and for much of the final, the Chipolopolo seemed the hungrier of the two sides.
It was certainly Cote d'Ivoire’s tournament to lose. Chelsea talisman Didier Drogba missed from the spot in normal time and that could have sealed victory for them. The introduction of Zambia’s Felix Katongo and the Coast's Max Gradel into the game brought some spark and urgency to both sides, but defences stood tall.
The Ivorians became more attack-minded by switching Arsenal play-maker Gervinho to the right flank, but an impressive Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene was on top form, with his anticipation and positioning equal to each Ivorian attack.
|COTE D'IVOIRE'S TITLE TO LOSE
Charismatic | Inspirational captain Christopher Katongo spurred his side on to victory
Zambia were also unlucky in certain instances. The Elephants goalkeeper Barry Copa made two vital saves to protect his side from conceding early. The 32-year-old stopped Nathan Sinkala's shot from a well-worked corner and then tipped Katongo's strike onto the post in extra-time.
With the dreaded penalty kicks approaching, the Ivorians pushed hard for a winner but failed to make their pressure count while Zambia were content to defend deep and make brief forays forward. No winner was forthcoming and a marathon spotkick session followed in which Kolo Toure erred first (Sol Bamba scoring on a retake after missing originally) and looked to have contributed to his team's downfall.
But Rainford Kalaba handed the Elephants an improbable lifeline that Gervinho wasted. Stopilla Sunzu stepped forward and proved much less merciful than his team-mate, burying his shot confidently to deliver his country their first continental title while washing away the final failures of 1974 and 1994.
|CATHARTIC VICTORY INSPIRED BY 1993 TRAGEDY
Paying homage | The Chipolopolo paid tribute to their departed ahead of the final
It was a cathartic victory for the Chipolopolo. They lost an entire national team in a plane crash in 1993 close to the venue of the final in Libreville. The lone survivor from that squad, Kalusha Bwalya, now the FA president, led an entirely new team to the final of the Nations Cup a year later and finished as runners-up.
|CARTOON OF THE DAY|
|Being watched from on high
The current generation of Zambia players felt the only way to placate the departed souls of Efford Chabala - Richard Mwanza, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom Chansa, Kelvin Mutale, Timothy Mwitwa, Numba Mwila, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Kanan Simambe, Godfrey Kangwa, Winter Mumba and Patrick Banda - was to win the Afcon trophy at the location where they were last seen before their tragic death in the Atlantic Ocean en route to Senegal for a World Cup qualifier.
What an inspiration that proved to be for the new kings of African football. It was a heroic triumph led by charismatic captain Chris Katongo, who deserved the Most Valuable Player of the Tournament accolade awarded to him, while coach Renard (pictured right) was also exceptional.
The Zambians have proven that big names do not always win football tournaments - determination and hunger for victory can carry a team all the way. They kept their discipline and eventually their patience paid off. It comes as a great deal of motivation for them as they kick off their 2014 World Cup qualifiers in a group that includes Ghana and Sudan – opponents they have already beaten at the Afcon.
Who will want to stand in the way of the Copper Bullets – a team that defeated the three major favourites - Senegal, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire - on their way to the 2012 Afcon title?
Zambia have earned respect from the football fraternity and are now among the powerhouses of the entire continent.
Congratulations to the new kings of Africa who rose from the ashes of Gabon to be crowned champions of Africa.