For all of football’s glaringly obvious faults, every now and then the moments of controversy are counterbalanced by moments of beauty; moments which remind us why we bother with the whole rigmarole at all, and moments that make us remember why we fell in love with it in the first place. Against the backdrop of a football landscape populated and dominated by the likes of Tevez, Suarez and those involved in Egypt’s tragic violence, last week Zambia’s national team defied the odds to play out a script written in perhaps their darkest hour, nineteen years ago.
The scene is Libreville, in the tiny African nation of Gabon; a mere 500 metres off the coast, a Zambian Air Force plane crashes, killing all 25 passengers and five crew members. Among them were eighteen of Zambia’s most talented footballers, bound for Dakar in Senegal where they were due to play a World Cup qualifier. Not only did Zambia lose 30 citizens, but also a collection of its sporting idols; heroes they have mourned to this day.
Zambia’s national team returned to the site of the disaster two weeks ago, but in much more fortunate circumstances, with a mind to rewrite the tale, and change the symbolism of Gabon’s capital in Zambian history. Under the guidance of former Cambridge United manager Hervé Renard, the unfancied Zambian side swept through the group stages, and beat Sudan and a highly-rated Ghanaian side to set up a final against usual favourites Cote d’Ivoire in Libreville.
To Renard, it was ‘written in the sky’, but for the rest of the world Zambia were distinct underdogs. With only one of their squad playing in any European top flight team (and even then, the forgettable Swiss side Young Boys), they were a stark contrast with the Ivorians’ host of Premier League stars, including the infamous Didier Drogba, Yaya and Kolo Touré, and Newcastle’s Cheik Tioté.
The Zambians, however, were undeterred, and kept the scoreline level at nil all until the end of ordinary and extra time – albeit aided slightly by Drogba’s harrowing second half penalty miss. What followed was perhaps the most tremendously tense shoot-out of recent times.Each of the fifteen total successful penalties were perfectly struck, from Tioté’s strike to start the battle, Sinkala’s screamer, or the Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene’s cool-headed penalty against his opposite number.
At a time when sportsmanship in football is arguably at its lowest ebb, it was refreshing to see a show of mutual respect between him and Boubacar Barry as they shook hands afterwards.
Mweene would go on to save Kolo Touré’s meek attempt, but Kasaba’s following miss cost Zambia their advantage. Not for long, though, as Arsenal’s Gervinho – clearly reluctant to take a penalty at all – skied his attempt over the bar. The winning penalty went to Zambian midfielder Sunzu, who fired home Zambia’s last to bring the final scoreline to 8-7.
In a lasting image, after the final whistle Renard carried his injured full back, Joseph Musonda, to the rest of the squad so he could join in their prayer of celebration and then respectfully left them to it. Later, the players danced with the Frenchman, and lifted him on their shoulders, emphasising the high regard in which they held the coach who had led them to glory.
The day before the final, the team held a ceremony on the beach near the site of the crash, laying flowers in the water. At the final, they prayed.
Their prayers, and those of the Zambians watching in the stadium and at home, were answered. Zambia had won their first ever African Cup of Nations.
It was a fitting tribute to the victims of the 1993 crash. The news of their death had elicited mournful cries when it was announced on national television nineteen years ago; last week, Zambia’s streets were filled with cheers.
Elsewhere, Zambia’s victory had brought hope to football lovers further afield that perhaps the beautiful game still has some beauty left in it after all.