Côte d’Ivoire are out to finally do justice to their reputation as the best team on the continent when they take on Zambia in an emotionally-charged Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday.
The Elephants will start as warm favourites as they seek to kick into touch the “chokers” tag applied to Didier Drogba and company after disappointing campaigns in 2008 and 2010.
Zambia, who have reached the final on a wave of emotion as they kept their promise to come to Libreville to honour their comrades who perished in the 1993 plane crash off the Gabon capital’s coast, have a mountain to climb.
But Copper Bullets manager Herve Renard says he likes heights.
“When I see a mountain I want to climb to the top of it, that’s what we’ll be doing on Sunday,” said the Frenchman.
Zambia, a yawning 63 rungs below their rivals in Fifa’s world rankings, are trying to become the first team to score a goal against Côte d’Ivoire since the start of battle three weeks ago.
Côte d’Ivoire boast an enviable record in Equatorial Guinea/Gabon, not only have they won all their five matches but they have also avoided conceding a single goal, to nine scored.
Zambia, who were runners-up the year after the plane tragedy, have scored nine, but conceded three, and won four of their games and drawn one.
A compelling contest is in prospect as Côte d’Ivoire target a second title after their lone success 20 years ago, while the Copper Bullets are targeting their first.
The 2012 Elephants have foresaken the flashy brilliance of years gone by and adopted a more pragmatic, “results are what count” style.
The architect of that fresh approach is coach Francois Zahoui.
Zahoui’s policy has worked a treat, as his men avoided the same fate as the likes of competition co-favourites Ghana, knocked out by Zambia in Wednesday’s semi-final, and the trio of shock first round casualties Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco.
He said: “We have to learn from past mistakes. In 2010 we were leading Algeria [in the quarter-finals] and we were knocked out because we wanted to go forward too much. We left then with lots of regret.
“We know we have to be solid in defence, and for the moment we succeed in doing that very well, our strength comes from that.
“But football is all about scoring one more goal than your rival: if we concede three on Sunday, and score five, I’ll be happy.”
‘We can make the difference’
This impregnable defence coupled with forwards who can strike at will are the cornerstones of Côte d’Ivoire’s march to Sunday’s final, says Salomon Kalou.
The Chelsea star said: “Our aim has been to not let in any goals.
“And with the strikers we’ve got, at any moment we can make the difference.”
That was plain for all to see on Wednesday when Arsenal star Gervinho raced from the halfway line to score a superb solo goal to down valiant Mali.
“Our goals can come from anywhere,” added Kalou. “From Yaya [Toure], Gervais [Gervinho], Didier [Drogba], myself…”
Zambia reject any idea of being in awe of the star-studded Elephants, with captain Christopher Katongo saying beating Ghana has helped his teammates discard any sense of stage fright.
“The young players learned something against Ghana, not to fear big names. It’s just 11 players against 11 out on the pitch, they’ve picked that up from the Black Stars victory.”
‘Spirit can get you far’
Katongo said one of the keys to Zambia’s progress to the final had come from Egypt, the champions in 2006, when they beat the Ivorians in the title showdown in Cairo, 2008, and 2010.
“We’ve seen from the Egyptians the importance of team spirit, they didn’t have any huge individual stars but collectively proved that spirit can get you far. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve done so well here.”
Zambia believe strongly that this is their moment, 19 years on after the crash that wiped out the national team, the only survivor being Kalusha Bwalya, who was not on the ill-fated flight.
Bwalya, now president of the Zambian Football Federation, said: “I pray that their souls may forever rest in peace and that God will give us the strength and the courage to fulfil our dreams … and theirs.” — AFP