Victory 'was written in the sky'
When legendary Zambian Kalusha Bwalya and his executive committee took a decision to terminate the services of Italian coach Dario Bonetti two weeks after they had qualified for the 28th Africa Cup of Nations, the story hit the headlines and dominated radio talkshows across the country.
The former African Footballer of the Year, who is now president of the Zambian Football Association, was heavily criticised in some quarters and many Zambians must have wondered whether the man who scored four goals against Italy in the 1988 Olympics had lost his mind.
But following a heady week in which Zambia became only the second Southern African country, following South Africa, to win the cup—Bwalya proved that the decision had been in the best interest of Zambian football.
Zambia has produced excellent footballers over the years. Even with few resources they continue to export busloads of players to Europe and South Africa’s premier league.
Their youth policy is among the best in Africa. “Our policy has always been to recruit, polish and then nurture these youngsters for international football,” said Bwalya. “We concentrate on developing these youngsters and teach them the importance of collective work and the importance of representing one’s country.
“We feel that, at their age, we should not be emphasising the importance of winning at all costs, because if you do that you are prone to cut corners. In Zambia we focus on teaching the youngsters the basics.
“At the time we parted ways with Bonetti,” said Bwalya, “it’s true Zambia had qualified for the Afcon. But they had not been convincing. We had won some games, but they were scrappy affairs. We just did not dominate our opponents and something was missing. Technically we did not look like we were equipped to deal with Africa’s top teams.
“I did not want Zambia to go to the Africa Nations Cup merely to participate, I wanted Zambia to go there and win the tournament. But clearly, under Bonetti, we just did not display an inkling of a team that could go to the tournament and compete.”
Zambia reappointed Frenchman Hervé Renard, who was in charge of the team during the 2010 tournament when they lost to Nigeria in a quarterfinal penalty shootout. He resigned soon after to coach Angola, with whom he parted ways after only six months.
Renard feels bringing him back to Lusaka to lead the team in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea was a stroke of genius on Bwalya’s part.
“You see, even when I had been away from Zambia, I kept in touch with most of the players as well as the authorities.”
After the quarterfinal triumph over Equatorial Guinea, Zambia flew to Libreville for a semifinal showdown with Ghana. Before the match, the team and technical staff visited the beach site where the bodies of the 30 players and crew members, who died in the 1993 plane disaster, were washed ashore, to lay flowers.
“It was written in the sky that Zambia would win this tournament,” said Renard. “You see, it was symbolic, really. So, when we got together in camp with the players, we started talking about the possibility of winning the tournament in a country where the Zambian heroes died. The plan was put in place during a three-week intense training period in South Africa.”
There was a feeling among people in Gabon that, as Zambia continued to surprise and negotiate its way past opponents, some supernatural force was at play “helping” the unstoppable Zambians.
“Yes, we did feel a spiritual connection when we visited that site,” said captain Chris Katongo. “Some of us were infants when those heroes died. But arriving at the site we felt a heavy responsibility to finish what they had started before death robbed them of their ambitions.”
An unwitting journalist from Ghana played a motivational role in the destruction of his country when, during a pre-match conference, he cheekily asked the Zambian players to identify themselves because “we do not know you”.
“I felt like walking out of that conference,” said Katongo. “That was totally uncalled for and such disrespect. But I restrained myself and later informed all the players what had transpired. We felt motivated and agreed to ensure that at the end of the game that journalist would be able to identify us.”
After South Africa’s disastrous campaign in the U-17, U-20 and U-23 rounds—and the senior national team performing a crazy jig in Mbombela in the mistaken belief that they had qualified—it will do Bafana Bafana a world of good to pay a courtesy visit to Lusaka on a fact-finding mission.