“We were the best for one tournament but I’m really sure we are not the best team in Africa.” Those were Herve Renard’s words in the afterglow of Zambia’s historic 2012 Afcon triumph.
A year later, when defending their title, the Frenchman maintained his clear train of thought after Zambia exited the group stages, praising the players’ professionalism and effort rather than resorting to populist platitudes about arrogance and ego.
But that refreshing perspective has become eroded as the national team has increasingly buffered since their 2012 triumph. It’s out with the old and in with the new as the Chipolopolo (Copper-headed Bullets) have reloaded their armoury as they seek to rebrand. Arriving with the belief that the Zambia team had players that were either jaded or no longer good enough, the appointment of Honour Janza signalled the end for the likes of Christopher Katongo (ousted for disciplinary reasons), Joseph Musonda and Isaac Chansa.
Janza is a disciple of Kalusha Bwalya, the Zambia FA president, and Renard and thus is a firm believer in grooming teams over the long run to achieve the desire end result. The composition of the squad has mirrored the long-term vision with Kennedy Mweene, the 30-year-old goalkeeper, the eldest player in the squad and 13 of the squad aged 24 or below.
Safeguarded by a well-governed, patient FA, there is no cut-throat pressure for Janza to excel in this year’s edition. Qualifying itself, even in a group that that included Cape Verde, Mozambique and Niger, was deemed satisfactory enough.
Yet we must remember that Zambia have 17 Afcon appearances to their name – of the teams in this edition, only Ivory Coast (with 20) and Ghana (19) have made more. When you’re used to being there, the nation tends to expect more than major tournament tourism.
In line with the tactical masterplan left behind by the Afcon-winning reign of Renard, Zambia remain a dynamic side capable of interchanging between tactical systems. The Chipolopolo will line up in a fluid 4-4-2 formation that can flex into a 4-1-3-2 or 4-4-1-1. An athletic but lightweight team, perhaps the lightest at the tournament, they don’t have the players to retain possession for large spells; they are more comfortable sitting back and hitting teams on the counter. Spoilt with twinkle-toed wingers and attacking midfielders, their attacking play is easy on the eye but involves over-elaborate skills and moves which usually don’t finish with the desired end result.
Experienced defence – Although Hichani Himoonde and the evergreen Joseph Musonda haven’t made the squad, Davies Nkausu, Stoppila Sunzu and Kennedy Mweene remain. That trident in their backline is enough to make Zambia have one of the most cohesive – and most experienced – backlines at the tournament.
Scoring goals – Although they were knocked out of the last Cup of Nations unbeaten, their lack of goals that ultimately contributed to their group stage exit. Two years have passed and their goalscoring poverty persists. They scored just six goals in qualifying, with three of them coming in their home win over lowly Niger.
Stoppila Sunzu – Despite Zambia’s early exit, the 25-year-old was so good at the last Cup of Nations that he was able to single-handedly make the core of Zambia’s defence impregnable. The China-based centre back will need to be at his very best if Zambia are going to be hard to beat again.
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Kennedy Mweene – Reliable goalkeepers come at a premium at the Cup of Nations and whilst Mweene can have his brainfart moments, his superb distribution, penalty-area authority and the bonus of being an accomplished penalty-kick taker, makes him a key bullet in the Chipolopolo’s armoury.
Honour Janza – Like Zambia’s AFCON-winning team, he has been groomed for the role over many years. Part of Zambia’s backroom staff for the last six years, the 48-year-old was the team’s technical director before being handed the head coach role last August after the departure of Patrice Beaumelle.
Group stage exit – The won’t embarrass themselves, but their frugality in front of goal and loss of some key figureheads makes it difficult to back the Zambians.