Zambia’s Chipolopolo Lift Afcon Trophy: Football’s Greatest Story Ever!
By Gilbert Phiri
In emphatic fashion, Zambia’s Chipolopolo indelibly etched their name in Africa’s football history by defeating a star-studded Ivory Coast team 8-7 in a penalty shoot-out, against all expectations and became the second Southern African country to win the African Cup of Nations. Zambia saved the most brilliant of football for the last day of what has been a wonderful tournament. From the first whistle, Chipolopolo’s determination to win the game was apparent.
Galvanised by an unmistakeable esprit de corps in the team forged by a fantastic coach in Herve Renard, there was no way the team was going to fail to win the Cup for it’s fallen heroes who died nineteen years ago in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon. One of the greatest football story ever was about to be written, against all conventional odds.
With Chisamba Lungu starting in midfield in place of Francis Kasonde the plot was always to move the ball quickly at Ivory Coast’s goal by utilising Kalaba, Katongo and Lungu’s pace. Chisamba’s presence in the starting eleven was a signal that Herve Renard would not only sit back and defend but would have a real go at the Ivorians by utilising the speed of Lungu in counter-attacking . By maintaining the same squad that had demolished Mali, the Ivorians were not going to change their tactics. Their fast wingers would be the main weapon to pulverise Zambia with Yaya in the middle being an outlet for passes to Drogba upfront. The stage was set for an epic rumble in the Gabonese jungle!
The first half was a tight affair with few goalscoring chances and opportunities for both sides. The game started at a slow tempo in the first half, with Zambia the livelier side. As early as the 2nd minute Boubacar Barry in the Ivorian goal had to answer to Nathan Sinkala’s shot after the latter had benefitted from an exquisitely worked out corner kick from Kalaba and Katongo. Zambia’s disciplined formation and a compact midfield ensured that the anticipated Ivorian threat from the wings never really materialised. Kalou and Gervinho kept dropping into their own half to win the balls. Didier Drogba was isolated in front. The Ivorian’s alternative channel in the middle where Yaya Toure tends to link up with Drogba to join in attack was shut by the combative play of Nathan Sinkala and Isaac Chansa. The defiant duo of Chansa and Sinkala never allowed Yaya, Tiote and Zokora to boss the midfield. Aside the missed penalty awarded to Ivory Coast, the only real Ivorian threat in the first half came in the 29th minute when Yaya’s strike at Zambia’s goal in the 18-yard box went off the mark.
Zambia defended in a disciplined fashion and in numbers by getting behind the ball. Sunzu and Himoonde kept Didier Drogba very quiet. Mweene in Zambia’s goal was fired up and very commanding in his area. He deserved to cap his performance in the tournament with a spot kick he scored. He is one character in Zambia’s team!
In the second half both teams were content on sitting in their own halves. In a confirmation that the attacking threat from the wings had been neutralised by Zambia, the Ivorian technical bench withdrew Salomon Kalou for Gradel. Kalou had for the duration of the game failed to put in a decent cross for Drogba. His anticipated runs on the wings never materialised as Zambia’s Davies Nkausu read all his moves quite well. There was further reorganisation of the Ivorian midfield when the industrious Didier Zokora was subbed for Ya Konan and later Yaya Toure for Bony.
These midfield changes did not add any impetus to the Ivorians’ play but it was the lively Gradel on the left wing who started running at Chipolopolo’s right back causing Zambia to defend deeply. On the right flank, Gevinho began to make inroads in Zambia’s defence where Nyambe Mulenga had come on for the injured Joseph Musonda. Nyambe Mulenga could not effectively contain the lively Gervinho. Zambia had to reorganise. Felix Katongo came on for Nyambe Mulenga and the much quicker Chisamba Lungu was deployed in the left back position to deal with the threat of Gervinho. With Chisamba Lungu beginning to push up on the left wing, Gervinho was immobilised and was forced to track back deep in his team’s half.
On the right wing, Ivory Coast’s left back, Tiene had his hands full trying to deal with Felix Katongo’s runs. The best chance in open play came in the 95th minute when Felix broke through on the right and laid a pass to his brother Christopher Katongo whose shot at goal was only kept out of goal by the studs of Boubacar Barry.
In the end Zambia were deserving winners. They played the best football in the tournament. They were the hungriest team. They had a coach who had a point to prove after being roundly lampooned for having quit Zambia after the last African Cup of Nations in 2010. Most poignantly, the team had a sense of the neighbourhood in which they were; close to the miserable scene of the 1993 Gabon tragedy. They needed little inspiration to rise to the occasion. The victory was a stunning comeback story. Zambia’s football, despite the high of a 1994 appearance in the final of the Africa where it lost to Nigeria, had been on decline.
This victory, against an Ivorian team deemed to be one of the best ever squads in Africa, is a great football fairy story of the written-off underdog upsetting the established apple-cart in world football, leaving football pundits who had proclaimed an easy win for Ivory Coast with cake on their sorry faces! What a story! “Giants” of African football, move aside – there’s a new kid on the block, doing it like it has never been done before! Iyeee! Chipolopolo! Iyeee! Chipolopolo!