When not twelve months ago Zambia came to Libreville to conquer Africa — or at least what was left to conquer after dispatching of Senegal, Libya, the hosts in the form of Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, and Ghana whilst in Bata—there was a sense that something was different. Chipolopolo Boys were not just playing with the weight of taking down Africa’s heirs-apparent on their shoulders: they had to carry nearly two decades of pain for the generation who perished into the Atlantic mere kilometers to the west.
The body bags of fallen brethren in 1993, the state airplane on arrival in Lusaka to silence. This was Zambia who had fallen; this was Zambia who had crashed; this was Zambia, on the cusp of a maiden journey to the World Cup, on the cusp of a maiden crown as Africa’s kings, just a couple of years into democracy and a couple of victories from becoming the nation everyone was talking about. But it wasn’t to be, even as sheer emotion took them to the Africa Cup of Nations finals in 1994. Even as Elijah Nitana put Chipolopolo a goal up on three minutes. In 1994, playing for 1993, Zambia were second-best.
But when not twelve months ago, Zambia came to Libreville to conquer Africa, with the weight of 1993 holding their emotions grounded, Zambia rose above not only Ivory Coast but also the past and vindicated their fallen heros. After a goalless draw and 17 penalty takes, Stopilla Sunzu found the right hand side of the net to give the match its only separation and Zambia it’s first title.
And maybe it was the weight of 1993 that won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
Maybe without that weight, Nathan Sinkala’s penalty to stay alive at 5-6 sails over the top right corner. So delicate, so perfect, it was as if only something from above kept the ball from carrying over the bar and to the heavens.
Maybe without that weight, Kennedy Mweene dives past Kolo Toure’s shot on what was the only penalty save of the entire shootout.
Maybe without that weight, Zambia never even make it out of Bata.
It was fairy tale material. Zambia could not win the Africa Cup of Nations last year. It was Ivory Coast’s year. Or Ghana’s. Or maybe even reserved for an upstart like Mali or Senegal.
And this year, it is much the same.
Even Herve Renard, the man who returned to Lusaka for a second stint at Zambia not a year before glory, called it laughable to label Zambia favorites
“We cannot say we are the favorites — everybody would laugh if I said that,” Renard said at a pre-tournament press conference. “Ivory Coast and Ghana are the favorites.”
And that is the perception. Zambia are a one-time king, most pundits agree, and their reign as champions at one year will be the shortest in the competition’s history if perception is correct.
But something is different this year.
Last year, Zambia played to avenge the past. This year, Chipolopolo can play with the freedom of creating a future.
To be sure, Zambia have been inconsistent since winning the Africa Cup of Nations last February.
Despite a 1-0 home victory over World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finalists Ghana in the Copperbelt city of Ndola in June, Chipolopolo have lost in recent months to minnows Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, and Angola, looking each match less and less like the side that won the Africa Cup of Nations last year.
A continuation of that play will make it difficult to even beat an inspired Ethiopia side playing its first Africa Cup of Nations match in over three decades, let alone a Nigeria team returning to the competition after unthinkably missing the 2012 version.
Yet Renard has worked magic before, and the brilliant leadership of Christopher Katongo will make sure Zambia are ready for every challenge. The fact is, results aside, this Zambia team is better than the one that rode memories to continental glory last year. They are more experienced and more unified, and those were the two biggest concerns heading into last campaign.
The moves of Sunzu and Emmanuel Mayuka to English Premier League sides shows the rebirth of respect for Zambian football, but Chipolopolo cannot be content to let it sit there.
While there is respect for the team, the amount of respect does not reach the level usually reserved for continental champions. 2012 was a fluke in the eyes of many, and this Zambia team is not supposed to be good enough to prove that 2012 was anything else.
It is the job of these men to show that they do deserve respect and that 2012 was anything but temporary, short-lived glory.
Glory sleeps while men toil, and it is only through sweat and blood—whether metaphorical or real —that it can be awoken. And at best it is only awake for short stints at a time.
Last year, Chipolopolo showed that they can wake glory and party alongside it. Glory woke for the heros who died in 1993.
This year, Zambia’s task is simpler: win again and glory will fall upon you.
The 2013 version of the Africa Cup of Nations is Zambia’s to win, but not for the past. This Africa Cup of Nations is for Zambia today and for Zambia tomorrow.
Zambia have arrived, and it is time they rose up and show it. They may not be favorites, but they don’t need to be.
They just need to do what they have shown before they can do: win.