Zambia captain Christopher Katongo thinks the team’s impressive march to the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) is “payback time” for a six-year development plan.
African football is notorious for short-term thinking, with foreign coaches often handed temporary contracts at the last minute before big tournaments and players falling in and out of favour.
Inspired by former playing great and current federation president Kalusha Bwalya, Zambia has opted to favor coaching continuity and keeping the same core of young players together.
Now the team is on the verge of a first African Cup final since 1994, while traditional African heavyweights like Nigeria, Cameroon and Egypt failed to even qualify for the tournament.
Recognised as Zambia’s best ever player, Bwalya was coach in 2006 when the team was eliminated in the group stage of the African Cup.
Bwalya resigned from the post after the tournament to move into an administrative role at the Zambian football federation, becoming president in 2008.
Katongo, a member of the 2006 squad, said underachievement in that tournament led to a fundamental change in Zambian football policy.
“The long plan was with the president [Kalusha Bwalya],” Katongo said. “We made a plan … to keep the players [together] for four to five years. He insisted that we had to keep 70%-80% of these players, so that we could see what we can do.”
Despite Zambia’s record of regularly qualifying for the African Cup, further success was not instantaneous.
Zambia again failed to make it out of the group stage in the 2008 African Cup under local coach Patrick Phiri.
French coach Herve Renard took over in May 2008 but had a stuttering start in charge of the same core of players that had played in the previous two tournaments.
Berths in the 2010 African Cup and 2010 World Cup were decided in the same qualifying tournament, with Zambia just about making the African tournament but finishing well behind Algeria and Egypt in the race for a place at the World Cup.
Still, Zambia finally got out of the African Cup group stage in 2010 for the first time since 1996, topping a tough section including Cameroon, Tunisia and Gabon, before losing on penalties against Nigeria in the quarterfinals.
Renard was lured — apparently because of personal reasons — to take the Angola coaching job soon after the tournament but the move did not work out and he was reappointed by Zambia just a few months later in 2010.
Under a familiar coach, Katongo and his team mates secured a 15th African Cup appearance by winning the qualification group and have gone from strength to strength in the finals.
Only much-fancied Ghana in Wednesday’s semifinal stands in the way of the Chipolopolo — or “Copper Bullets” in English — making the final.
“We have unity [in our] team,” Katongo said. “Other teams have good players but they don’t have unity. You see how Senegal play. Nigeria is not here, why? Cameroon is not here, why? You can have 200-million professionals who play in Chelsea or Barcelona but if they can’t play together as a team you can’t do anything.”
The model of a stable group of players working with a coach for several years could be a blueprint as African football struggles to make a lasting impression on the world stage.
No African team has ever reached the semifinals of the World Cup and only Ghana reached the knockout stage — eventually losing on penalties in the quarter-finals — when the tournament was held in the continent for the first time in 2010.
Zambia has still to qualify for a World Cup — the team will have to top a difficult group including Ghana to reach a playoff for the 2014 tournament in Brazil — but African Cup glory in the meantime would vindicate Bwalya’s long-term vision.
“This is payback time,” Katongo said. “There is a process which is working and it’s working for the Zambia team. We know each other. I know where [teammate Rainford] Kalaba wants the ball, how he runs. He knows my weaknesses, I know his weaknesses, I know his strong points and this is a good thing. Maybe this time we can reach the final.” — Sapa-AP