Zambia injected raison d’etre into a sorry world that views international football with increasing apathy when they won the Cup of Nations last year, and they’re now back to defend their title.
Part of the joy for Zambians is that their photo-finish triumph didn’t come out of the blue. The Chipolopolo (the Copper-headed Bullets) had been running the marathon for six years thanks to the vision of the eminent Kalusha Bwalya; persisting with a studious group of players since the 2006 Cup of Nations, steadily improving tournament-by-tournament, and reaping the rewards for their prudent team-building when and where it mattered most – in Libreville, just miles away from where a plane full of the Zambian national team crashed into the sea in 1993, killing all aboard. Not even a revisionist could deny their happy ending.
And their rewards haven’t ceased there. Such is the experience omnipresent in the squad – the studious core are set to play in their fifth consecutive Cup of Nations, and only two of them are over 30 – that it’s difficult to completely dismiss them as one-hit wonders. For many of their players, playing at these tournaments is second nature. Even the youngest player in the squad, Porto’s 19-year-old left-back Emmanuel Mbola, who was in the 2010 Cup of Nations squad, is playing in his second tournament. Zambia aren’t prepared to slip away like a pop single on the radio just yet.
Eighteen of the twenty-three that were part of the AFCON-winning squad return, and coach Herve Renard still deploys the same starting XI that started in last year’s AFCON final in a 4-4-2 formation, morphing into a 4-2-4 when they spring into attack. As with last time around, it’s the protean quality in the starting XI that makes the Chipolopolo vehemently venomous. The flexibility of the Zambian players allows Renard to utilise myriad systems, coping with the different questions the opposition poses.