How about that then? Zambia defied so many odds to pick up the continental cup on Sunday, so lets look at how they got there…
Herve Renard’s men entered the tournament in a group with outside favorites Senegal, hosts Equatorial Guinea, and surprise package Libya – who really had a politically charged bit between their teeth. Many would not have favored Zambia to get out of that group, but after the opening day’s result – a 2-1 win over Senegal – they were immediately catching eyes. They followed up with a back-and-forth 2-2 draw with Libya, and then a 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea saw them go through top of the group.
They easily dispatched Sudan 3-0 in the quarter finals but then disaster seemingly struck. A hundredth minute goal by Andre Ayew saw Ghana get past Tunisia, and become Zambia’s opponents for the semis.
But moving up from the third favorites to the second favorites proved no problem for the now impressive Zambia. After absorbing huge amounts of pressure from Ghana – lead by the Ayew brothers, they finally buckled and gave away a penalty near the end of the first half. Up stepped Premier League wage villain Asamoah Gyan and, as in the World Cup quarter-final, he fluffed it as the Zambian goalkeeper parried away.
Right on the whistle for half time Zambia had an excellent chance and you sensed that the game was opening up. Ghana frustrated themselves more in the second half and A.Gyan was subbed off as his influence dissipated. At 78 minutes any suspicions that Zambia might have had their tactics right were clarified when Mayuka, a substitute, scored an absolutely perfect goal. Ghana failed to mount a response and were reduced to 10 men as Zambia booked their place in the final.
Inevitably their opponents would be the tournament favorites and three times finalists, the Ivory Coast. Truly it was to be a challenge for Zambia up against the likes of Drogba, Gervinho, the Toure brothers, and Boubacar Barry – who hadn’t conceded in nine hours. The Chipolopolo began the game with similar tactics to the Ghana game, but gained confidence in the second half and soon made it an open game. Then they gave away a penalty again as Gervinho ran into the box. Up marched Premier League top scorer 2007 and 2010 Didier Drogba to … miss.
The game continued into extra time and Zambia looked equally good for a goal as Barry produced a magnificent save onto the post to keep The Elephants in it, and onto a penalty shootout.
The first five penalties (including one by Drogba) were all scored, as were the next two sudden death pens. It is worth noting that some of these penalties were among the best I had ever seen in a shootout, real top corner-ers. Finally, and after a massive run-up, Kolo Toure delivered a poor penalty to give Zambia an opportunity, an opportunity that Kalaba couldn’t take.
Next was Gervinho, who looked uncertain and clearly didn’t want to take a penalty, a fact that was made clear when he put the ball over the crossbar. This time Zambia didn’t miss the chance as Sunzu dispatched his kick to give Zambia their first ever title.
The win is made all the more poignant when the location was considered.
Libreville – 500 yards from the final resting place of the 18 players and 4 coaching staff that perished in the 1993 Zambian football team air crash. The win was dedicated to them, but the real dedication was within the players themselves and the performances they gave.
Zambia’s group stages goals were mainly scored by Christopher Katongo (awarded player of the tournament) and Emmanuel Mayuka – both of which looked threatening in every game. They possessed pace, lower centers of gravity, and confidence which coursed through their team.
Katongo seemed to be the experience of the team but for me Mayuka was the best player of the tournament. The Young Boys player scored less crucial goals in the group stage but his peach in the quarter-final is too good to ignore. A feigned back heel leads to a technically perfect curler that deserved to win most games.
Another less mentioned player that was instrumental to lifting the cup was Kennedy Mweene, the Chipolopolo goalkeeper.
Something noticeable about the competition was the inexperience of the goalkeeping. The very best goalkeepers don’t just do the right thing, they know what the right thing to do is. They have a set plan for every situation they have experienced – hence why they get better with age and younger keepers struggle.
Mweene regularly dominated his box, gobbling up everything that came near him. He provided decent shot stopping and a crucial save against Gyan’s penalty. Even though he was swamped with situations at times (particularly against Ghana) and didn’t deal with them all well, his head never dropped and he continually barked orders at anyone who came near him. This gave Zambia an iron defence that all stemmed from Mweene.
Mayuka’s goal was the best of the tournament for me but I’ve already shown it to you so here’s the runner-up:
Immaculate. As if Yaya didn’t have enough in his locker already.