AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS 2012
Gabon and Equatorial Guinea
For those of you who may have missed it (no one can blame you, despite winning the TV rights ITV4 only began showing live games at the Semi Final stage) the African Cup of Nations tournament has been raging along Africa's tropical Atlantic coast in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. After nearly three weeks of shocks, breathtaking action, terrible weather and a strangely goalless-free group stage, one of the World's greatest football tournaments drew to a close last Sunday when Zambia, riding a wave of emotion, faced Ivory Coast, a side stuffed with Premier League stars...
Proof, if ever it was needed that football is God's own game. Unfancied, the Zambians entered the tournament forever haunted by the tragic Gabon aircrash of 1993 which ended the lives of what could have been Africa's greatest ever team.To reach the final would have been fitting, but to have claimed the trophy for themselves in Libreville, only a matter of miles from the crash site, was a tale of the purest football fantasy.
Throughout the 2012 Cup of Nations, the Elephants of the Ivory Coast had lived up to their reputation of competition favourites. They topped Group B with three straight wins over Sudan (1-0), Angola (2-0) and Burkina Faso (2-0). It has to be said that it was hardly the toughest of groups but as the old cliche goes, you can only beat what is put in front of you. The quarter final draw was equally as kind. Ivory Coast faced the joint-hosts, Equatorial Guinea who up to that point had been the surprise team of the competition. The Elephants upped their game. Chelsea's Drogba added two to the one he netted against Sudan and Ya Ya Toure of Manchester City got the other as yet another opponent was mercilessly swatted away. The Semi-Final, though was to prove to be a much bigger hurdle as the equally outstanding Mali stood between them and yet another final. It took this outstanding goal from Gervinho to separate both teams and squeeze the Elephants into the Libreville final.
Meanwhile, it was always going to be an emotional tournament for the Chipolopolo. On 27 April 1993 thirty people, including eighteen players were killed when a Zambian Airforce DHC-5 Buffalo crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, just 500 metres offshore from Libreville. The Copper Bullets were on their way to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal, (coincidently one of their 2012 Group A opponents) confident of victory. As a junior side they had destroyed the Italians 4-0 in the 1988 Olympic Games and now had their eye on qualification for USA 94', their first World Cup tournament. It wasn't to be. Captain and future national coach, Kalusha Bwalya missed the fatal flight because of club duties with PSV. Now as President of the Football Association of Zambia, Bwalya was about to witness those dreams finally coming true.
Group A pitched them in with Senegal, Libya and Equatorial Guinea. The Lions of Senegal had long since lost their bite and were beaten 2-1 in their opening game. A 2-2 draw with Libya and a narrow one-nil over hosts Equatorial Guinea confirmed Zambia's place in the Quarter-Finals. Like the Ivory Coast, their next opponents were easily brushed aside. Sudan has surprised many by just getting out of Group B, but goals from Stopilla Sunzu, Christopher Katongo with his third of the 2012 Cup of Nations and James Chamangain made sure that it was as far as they were going to get. Following that 3-0 victory, Zambia's Semi-Final opponents were the highly fancied Black Stars of Ghana. Things looked decidedly bleak for the Copper Bullets when Ghana were awarded a 12th minute penalty. Up stepped Asamoah Gyan. We all remembered what happened last time Gyan had a similiar opportunity, and history pointed the harsh finger at fate once more in his general direction. Gyan's miss contributed to yet another failure from the Black Stars which was compounded by Zambian subsitute, Emmanuel Mayuka's late winner. Incredibly, Chipolopolo were in the final.
The Final itself was always going to be a tight affair which once again swung on a missed penalty. This time the 'victim' was Ivorian and Chelsea 'legend' Didier Drogba. With an hour on the clock the Arsenal frontman Gervinho was shoved in the penalty area and the Senegalese referee, Badarra Diatta had no hesitancy in pointing directly to the spot. What Drogba did next was inexplicable. With a strong run-up the usually reliable Drogba sent the ball zooming into orbit; Zambian hearts quickened as Ivorian ones began to shrink.
The memories of that awful day in 1993 seemed to galvanise the Zambians throughout these three emotionally charged weeks, which was evidenced as the game headed into extra time and then the thumb-screw of penalties, once the Final finished goalless. In the end it was another two missed kicks by Premier League stars; Ya Ya Toure and semi-final hero Gervinho which handed Chipolopolo their moment of history. Up stepped Stoppila Sunzu to ensure Zambia's first, ever African Nations Cup title and condemn Ivory Coast yet to another Final penalties defeat. (The previous one being against former perennial winners Egypt back in 2006).
When the dust finally settles on the 2012 Nations Cup, Zambia's 8-7 penalties victory over Ivory Coast does not even begin to tell the full tale of their remarkable triumph. It was one in which the human spirit rose to the fore and when their coach Herve Renard dedicated the victory to those who perished in the 1993 crash, the current Zambian side ensured that the eighteen players would and could never be forgotten amidst a moment of triumph.