Destiny's children

Destiny's children

Nineteen years after an aircrash wiped out their team, Zambia climbed the African summit in style.

Green wonders Zambian players celebrate their African Nations Cup triumph.

Some things are meant to be.  After Sunday night turned into Monday morning, and Zambia was crowned the champion of African soccer, the team’s coach, Herve Renard, had only one explanation: “There was a special spirit with us,” he said.

“It was written in the sky.”

Renard, a Frenchman, had used this spirit from the very start. He has twice worked for the Zambian federation, and was hired for the job by Kalusha Bwalya, the only surviving star of the country’s most famous, and most blighted, team.

Now the president of Zambian soccer, Bwalya was not on the military plane that crashed into the sea off the coast of Libreville, Gabon, killing all aboard in 1993. He was not there because, as a player with PSV Eindhoven, he was taking his own flight from the Netherlands.

But Bwalya, or Kalusha as most Zambians know him, was on the beach of Libreville on Thursday (February 9) to lead the “boys” as they honoured the team many of them were too young to know. Right or wrong in terms of emotional risk just three days before the final, Bwalya, Renard and all the players walked as close as they could to where the plane came down, said their prayers and scattered flowers on the waves.

After that, what would they fear of the Ivory Coast, whose team included some of the biggest and best soccer players in African history? “I don’t get to shaking just because I am facing Drogba,” the Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene said before the final.

Nor, indeed, did he. Mweene is as courageous as any goalie coming off his line to throw himself at the feet of onrushing forwards, even against the Elephants, as the Ivorians are nicknamed. A trifle rash in his actions, maybe, but brave as brave could be.

And that accolade must be shared by the team that began this tournament three weeks ago as a 40-to-1 outsider to win it, and went on to eclipse more appreciated opponents: Senegal, Ghana and, finally, Ivory Coast.

All of those teams have players who are household names not simply in Africa, but around the world, where their skills are widely and lucratively employed. Zambia, but for a few exceptions, has a team built around players that compete in their homeland or nearby countries.

The earthly reason why Zambia prevailed was that its team played up to, and perhaps beyond, the sum of its talents. The opponents came nowhere near to playing up to their talent. Maybe the burden of expectations cowed them, maybe it was complacency, or perhaps the stars were holding something back for the clubs that pay their fortune?
Didier Drogba, so rich he can donate millions of dollars to build a hospital in the Ivory Coast and so influential he is a member of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, missed a penalty kick during the goalless 90 minutes.

Yaya Toure, the colossus who is Africa’s current player of the year and is very close to being the best midfield player in England’s Premier League, played so anemically that he was substituted. And all the while, Zambia ran and ran for their prize. The 90 minutes became 120 minutes with extra time, and in the equatorial heat and humidity, that turned into a penalty shootout marathon.

Seven Ivorians stood up and scored. Seven Zambians did the same. Then, as was bound to happen, players of lesser nerve buckled.

Kolo Toure, magnificent in defence in a team that had not conceded a goal all tournament, took an exaggerated long run-up and hit a tame shot that Mweene dived to his left to save. With Zambia’s players in a huddle of prayer and singing aloud, Rainford Kalaba had the chance of glory, but shot wide.

Then Gervinho, the Arsenal winger whose goal had taken Ivory Coast to this final, made a horrid, nerve-ridden mis-kick, lifting it so high that the goalkeeper had no need to move.

Finally, the ninth Zambian entrusted with a penalty kick, the 22-year-old defender Stophira Sunzu, scored with a shot as composed, yet as strong, as if he truly felt destined to finish off this test of man’s nerve under pressure.

That kick, the 18th of the shootout, ended an unbeaten streak that started long before this tournament and brought an outpouring of emotion by Zambia.

In the picture, the No. 20 is Emmanuel Mayuka, whose goal put Zambia into this final. The No.8 is Isaac Chansa, who plays for Orlando Pirates in Soweto, South Africa.

And the numbers 10 and 11 are the brothers Felix and Christopher Katongo. Felix, the younger at age 27, has already had one call of destiny in the past 12 months. He was rescued by the Zambian air force after the civil war broke out in Libya, where he was a player with the Tripoli club Al-Ittihad.

Christopher, 29, is Zambia’s team captain, and a redoubtable man of 1.69 meters, just over 5-foot-6, who has traveled the world as a player in South Africa, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and currently in China, where he plays for Henan Construction.

The Ivorian brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure are richer men by far, and hired by the wealthiest team in the world, Manchester City.

The Zambian kith and kin have trodden a more modest road. But they are African champions now. Destined, as their coach and their soccer president told them they would be.