/ 10 February 2012

It’s ‘Europe’ vs Africa at Afcon final

It's 'europe' Vs Africa At Afcon Final

Didier Drogba earns Kennedy Mweene’s annual salary in a couple of days. Drogba’s office is larney Stamford Bridge in London; Mweene’s office is Goble Park in Bethlehem — the home ground of Free State Stars and possibly the worst football stadium in human history. Until this week, Drogba may not have been able to name the Zambian national goalkeeper in a general knowledge quiz. (“Eux — eezeet — eux … Roosevelt Bwalya?”)

No longer. With that pivotal penalty save from Asamoah Gyan in the first Africa Cup of Nations semifinal, Mweene has leapt to the front of Drogba’s mind. The two have a critical business meeting in Libreville on Sunday night, in which their contrasting net worths will — in one sense — be utterly irrelevant.

But the intercontinental dynamic of this nations’ cup final will add some spice for the neutral viewer: the cream of African football’s Europe-based aristocracy will meet with a robust Africa-based challenge. Of the Chipolopolo squad, only the superb young goalscorer, Emmanuel Mayuka of Young Boys Berne, plays his club football in Europe.

Of course, Egypt claimed the last three editions of the tournament with largely home-based squads. But this year Zambia’s subversive campaign has demonstrated that some seriously polished professionals are happily plying their trade far south of the Egyptian Premier League — in Zambia, Congo and South Africa.

Aside from Mweene, the South African Premier Soccer League contingent in the Zambian starting lineup will probably also include Orlando Pirates midfielder Isaac Chansa, Golden Arrows fullback Joseph Musonda and SuperSport United centreback Davies Nkausu.

Drogba and his wonderfully deadpan boss, François Zahoui, will make the obligatory respectful noises this weekend about how seriously they are taking the Zambian threat. But the Ivorians should prevail on Sunday, erasing the pain of a decade of underachievement, provided they sustain their imperious defensive form for one more fixture.

They have yet to concede a goal at these finals and the attacking armoury of Drogba, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and African Footballer of the Year, Yaya Touré, looks too potent for the Zambian rearguard, who rode their luck a few times against the Black Stars.

But, but, but — the Rainford Kalaba factor must be considered. If Drogba is muttering any Zambian name in his nightmares this week, it should be Kalaba’s. The TP Mazembe schemer has more cunning in his feet than most of us have in our skulls — his teammates are not just being nice when they call him “Master”.

Zambia coach Hervé Renard rates him in the top 15 players in Africa, and another Iniesta-ish performance in the final, whatever the result, will make it hard for Mazembe to keep his services.

The bookies rate Zambia’s chances of claiming their first Nations Cup gold at about 6/1 — worth a flutter if you’re feeling bold. And all the poets and mystics will tip Zambia.

A Chipolopolo triumph just a few kilometres from the patch of ocean where their forebears died in a plane crash in 1994 would bring tears to the eyes of millions.

Much has been said about this being Drogba’s last shot at continental gold, with Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora also reaching the sunset of their careers. But the Drog’s relaxed demeanour these days suggests he is not investing too much hope or fear in this campaign. He is 33, but still in wonderful shape and he could easily give the nations’ cup another shot in South Africa next year.

Although he was short of his best in the semifinal against Mali, it has been wonderful to see Drogba leading the Elephants with such class and authority. Long gone is the sulky, self-absorbed, theatrical Drogba of his early years at Chelsea. He is now a consummate captain, a mature footballer and an Ivorian national hero in a sense that extends beyond his exploits on the pitch — for example, he has built a R30-million hospital in Abidjan with his own money.

But sometimes too much maturity and wisdom can take the edge off a player’s force of will and Drogba is often at his belligerent best when he is pissed off.

We could be in for a connoisseur’s final if Kalaba and Mayuka do some damage early on in the final, thus provoking some vintage Drogba mayhem and the very best of Gervinho and Yaya Touré.

If that happens, Mweene may find himself longing for the safety of Goble Park.