Cote D’Ivoire never had a chance. Whatever the multi-talents of their squad, the Elephants were going to struggle in this African Cup of Nations final…up against two teams. As if the Zambian side at this competition wasn’t good enough, there was the memory of their 1993 predecessors with which to contend, and the current squad’s hugely admirable determination to do justice to that memory. Arguably Zambia’s most-talented, all-but-one of the 1993 squad lost their lives in a plane crash off the Gabonese coast near capital Libreville – the venue for this year’s final – as they journeyed to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal.
The sole survivor was Kalusha Bwalya, who played in Holland and thus had different travel arrangements to his African-based colleagues. Bwalya is now Zambian Football Association president – and his presence gave the post-final celebrations a poignant focal point. The story was part of this tournament from its opening day, when Zambia beat Senegal, although the understated dignity with which the Zambians cited the 1993 side meant the story didn’t overwhelm the modern one of a lively, well-led counter-attacking outfit; at least not until the final’s remarkable penalty shoot-out.
Despite finishing 0-0, the final was a decent game of football, especially for a major final and particularly for an ACN final, the last three of which have been ghastly. Zambia’s set-pieces showed more imagination than the rest of the tournament’s put together; and their opener in this game was the most imaginative of all, a near-post ball to Christopher Katonga and a visionary pass from the captain to set up Nathan Sinkala, whose low drive was very well-saved by Ivorian keeper Boubacar Barry. It set the tone for much of the opening half, in spite of the horrible ankle injury to left-back Joseph Musonda, whose tearful early departure showed again the pride which still pervades African international football (Didier Drogba’s consoling hug as Musonda left the pitch was sportsmanship of high quality, but was to be the highlight of his display, as we shall see). Even Zambia’s coach Herve Renard was smiling. This wasn’t necessarily a good sign because his mood usually darkened as his team brightened. However, normal service resumed, when a booming “Mayuka” rent the air, followed by a further demonstration of Renard’s tendency to get angry in English. Renard was matched in the angry stakes by Ivorian counterpart Francois Zahoui, whose previously calm tournament demeanour was replaced with perma-annoyance and an ill-fitting cap which did as little to keep the rain off as it did to hide Zahoui’s anger.
Half-time brought sight of a considerable Chinese presence among the dignitaries (perhaps not surprising in the “Stadium of Chinese and Gabonese friendship”), and unexpected evidence that Zambian independence movement leader Kenneth Kaunda was still alive. The third quarter had the normal tempo of a major international final (unfortunately). But matters speeded up again on 68 minutes with Senegalese referee Badara Diatta given multiple-choice of infringements as Gervinho raced into the penalty box. Diatta only got the advantage law out on special occasions, but this was special. Gervinho was fouled at least once outside the box before tumbling – oh, the mysteries of human balance – inside it. But the first foul(s) by Isaac Chansa were ignored or unseen while the second brought another whistle and a harsh booking for Musonda’s replacement Nyambe Mulenga.
This relative chaos took two minutes to sort out, which could not have helped an already less-than-confident Drogba, who had failed with his last ACN penalty, against Equatorial Guinea in the quarter-finals here, and his last ACN shoot-out penalty, in Cote D’Ivoire’s loss to Egypt in the 2006 final. “I don’t fancy him,” noted Eurosport’s Stewart Robson, who was playing a commentary box blinder, rather than denying potential homo-erotic feelings for a muscular centre-forward in a tight orange shirt. Either way, it was handy there was a multi-ball system in operation, or at least another two minutes would have been wasted retrieving Drogba’s skied spot-kick from downtown Libreville. Drogba looked accusingly at the spot, as if the inanimate object was responsible rather than his lofted club of a right-boot (though maybe we should be glad he didn’t dive). Zambian keeper Kennedy Mweene spoiled an otherwise exemplary display with by dancing, almost literally, under Drogba’s nose, before offering a handshake laced with unintended irony, given topical events in Manchester. So, would Drogba react as angrily as in the quarter-finals, when he nearly burst the net with his next shot? Erm…no.
Yet both sides could still have clinched victory. One-time Leeds United player of the year Max Graedel nearly capped a lively cameo as substitute with an 87th-minute winner, turning the entire Zambia defence with one drop of the shoulders but turning his left-foot shot just too far back they way he came. And Manchester City’s Kolo Toure recovered from supposedly his first mistake of the tournament to take the ball off Emmanuel Mayuka’s toes with a last-ditch, last-gasp, last everything interception – although classing it a defensive mistake was harsh on a fabulous build-up and a wonderful chipped pass by Chansa.
Both sides “went for it” for most of extra-time. And Zambia nearly got it when substitute Felix Katongo, resplendent in a rare long-sleeved shirt, set up brother Christopher (who earlier tried to roll up his short-sleeved shirt), only for the captain’s shot to be diverted onto the post by much-maligned Ivorian keeper Boubacar Barry. “Not even by his boot, but by his studs,” noted Efan Ekoku, ITV4’s best tournament pundit by a distance (although Cameroon’s Lauren was a refreshing addition to their final team). If fate was conspiring, it seemed to be for Cote D’Ivoire. But we hadn’t seen anything yet. While the football at most recent ACN’s has not been of the highest standards, the penalties in shoot-outs have. We were frequently informed when a shoot-out loomed on the horizon, that Cote D’Ivoire lost the 2006 final on penalties, with Drogba missing his kick.
It was overlooked, however, that Cote D’Ivoire beat Cameroon 12-11 on penalties in that year’s quarter-finals, with Drogba scoring the shoot-out’s first penalty…and its 23rd, after everyone – goalkeepers too – had scored. That quality was replicated here, fourteen times, even with a penalty spot which, unlike the one from which Drogba missed, wasn’t an inanimate object at all. Cote D’Ivoire’s Sol Bamba brought a wonderful save out of Mweene with his kick – much to the delight of Robson, who had been on the Leicester centre-back’s case all evening. But Mweene was punished for encroaching as far as every other goalkeeper in the tournament. And Robson had nothing to say when Bamba re-arranged the roof of the net with his piledriven re-take.
Then it got really weird. The camera caught Boubacar Barry yawning before every Zambian kick. But if he’d had an effects microphone nearby, he could have been kept awake by the sound of the Zambian subs bench…singing, with a harmony and tunefulness which went (very) missing during the pre-match national anthems. In truth, no-one in the penalty box could have heard this, even if the crowd hadn’t long since turned noisily frenzied. But it made chillingly good telly. How could Cote D’Ivoire survive?
The shoot-out got to proverbial sudden death, as a series of kicks flew over the dives of keepers now rooted to their lines. Drogba scored Cote D’Ivoire’s fifth kick to a backdrop of fierce booing and suddenly was a man of steely nerve again – which would have been news to the ball-boy still searching for his previous penalty. And… Mweene took Zambia’s fifth kick, which had “foolish bravado” written all over it – if he missed, Zambia lost.
But the fates were re-conspiring. Mweene dispatched the coolest penalty of all – receiving a wonderfully warm handshake from Barry. And although Nathan Sinkala’s toe-punt into the very, VERY top corner caused momentary consternation, 7-7 was clinically reached, before Manchester City’s Kolo Toure approached the danger area. Robson had as his player of the tournament and maintained a theme which emerged before Pierre Aubemyang missed his penalty in Gabon’s quarter-final shoot-out; that of the “most talented” players being the ones to miss. Penalty-taking has, I’m sure, never been high among Kolo Toure’s talents. And he punted his kick with less height and pace than Sinkala, giving Mweene time to leave his line legally and make the save for which he would always be remembered…if Rainford Kalaba could score. Kalaba was one of the “most talented” players of the tournament. The rest, you can guess. Up stepped Gervinho, to provide a moment of destiny…for Stewart Robson. “He’s not a great finisher,” noted Robson, correctly, although that has never previously had significance attached to it in shoot-outs which have always been portrayed as tests of nerve. And it was significant here, as Gervinho fired yards wide.
The Zambian subs, who briefly stopped singing as tension overwhelmed their vocal cords, cleared their throats for a chorus with the proverbial fat lady as Stophira Sunsu joined in while approaching his kick. He… ulp… slipped. By now, though, external powers of some sort were on hand to keep him upright enough for long enough to find the net. The trophy itself was walked into position at a pace which allowed the Zambian party to… have a party. Bwalya and Kaunda made re-appearances. The injured Musonda was carried into the scrum of celebrating team-mates by his manager. And there were tears, hugs and flags in equal measure. It was fair to say that nothing became this tournament like the leaving of it.
Mali’s third-place play-off success was as much a comment on the mediocrity of the football as a whole as the national pride they showed in foregoing their qualification bonus, an “extraordinary gesture” according to Eurosport commentator Wayne Boyce, “very naïve” according to jokingly-cynical Matt Jackson, sat next to him. But whatever your cynicism levels, Mali were worthy winners of the predictable non-event. Striker Cheik Diabate bagged a brace to claim his share of the “Golden Boot”, probably a shoelace and a stud, given that six players top-scored with three. Ghana were split down the middle between disenchanted (Jordan Ayew) and disinterested (everyone else). And the match ended with a foul on Seydou Keita, which was appropriate.
A more detailed summary of the tournament will follow on these pages soon. Suffice to say that while people have predicted that a team will soon win a tournament without winning a game, few foresaw Cote D’Ivoire not winning the tournament despite not conceding a goal. Ultimately, the best team probably didn’t win, but the right team did. It would be foolish to predict great things for this Zambian side. But they had the best 1970s tracksuits and the best manager. And they wished to do justice to the memory of the 1993 squad, simply by playing well. An honourable ambition, honourably and inspirationally achieved.
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