‘It was a sign of destiny, written in the sky. There was a force with us. I think God has helped us and given us strength.’
It was almost fitting that Zambia coach Herve Renard chose those words to describe Zambia’s remarkable Africa Cup of Nations glory almost a decade ago now.
In truth, few gave them a prayer of achieving such a fairytale piece of football history when the 28th edition of the tournament – co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon – began in its customary January and February slot.
Zambia completed a fairytale story a decade ago when they won the Africa Cup of Nations
But such was the emotional trauma that their football side – and the nation for that matter – had suffered, that perhaps there was some divine figure looking down on Zambia after all.
In April 1993, a plane carrying Zambia’s national team to a 1994 World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after a refuelling stop, killing 18 players.
Overall, 25 passengers and five crew members were killed, with the aircraft having taken off from Libreville in Gabon.
The shock of the incident reverberated around the country. Normal programming of state television was interrupted in order to announce the crash in eight languages. In the capital Lusaka, an anguished population mourned in private and on the streets.
The team were still suffering from the 1993 plane crash that claimed the lives of 18 players
Perhaps none of the country’s citizens did so more than star player Kalusha Bwalya, the only survivor of that 1993 side, but only because he had travelled away from the group having been in Holland with PSV Eindhoven.
So when the Gabonese capital was handed the final of the 2012 tournament at a stadium not far from where the crash took place, it only increased Zambia’s determination to reach the showpiece event.
‘We are going to this tournament to put the souls of our fallen heroes to rest,’ said Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene before the tournament began. His impact on the tournament would be inspiring, and his words themselves inspired.
Those sentiments were echoed by coach Herve Renard, who had just returned for his second spell in charge of Zambia, promising to bring success with him.
With all their games up to a potential final in Equatorial Guinea, he said: ‘It was only possible for us to return to Gabon [to honour the 1993 team] if we made the final. That gave us incredible strength.’
But they began their campaign by shocking trophy contenders Senegal in opening game
But it appeared it would need more than sheer determination from the Chipolopolos to see them pull off the most unlikeliest of triumphs.
Zambia may have finished top of Group C in qualifying, but Libya, Mozambique and the Comoros were not deemed the most challenging of opponents.
They were also 71st in the FIFA rankings when the competition began, and there was a real dearth of players who were experiencing club football on a regular basis outside of Africa prior to the tournament.
In the squad, just three played in Asia, and two in Europe – namely Russia and Switzerland – leading to doubts about whether they had the pedigree in the squad to go all the way in a tournament.
This was a particular concern given that the competition featured sides like Ivory Coast, who had soon-to-be Champions League winner Didier Drogba among a number of Premier League stars in their ranks.
There was some hope though for any less-fancied side, given that traditional heavyweights such as reigning champions Egypt, as well as Cameroon, Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa had all failed to qualify.
Christopher Katongo was Zambia’s talisman and netted against Equitorial Guinea and Sudan
Zambia’s confidence meanwhile would only increase when they faced and subsequently beat a heavily-fancied Senegal side in their opening group game of the tournament.
Giving former Newcastle strike duo Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba very little to feed off with a low defensive block, Zambia’s counter-attacking game plan worked to perfection in a 2-1 victory.
Equatorial Guinea and Libya lacked the flashy stars of a Senegal but Zambia’s concentration for the remaining two Group A games did not waver.
1993 ZAMBIA TEAM PLANE CRASH VICTIMS
Efford Chabala, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Kelvin ‘Malaza’ Mutale, Timothy Mwitwa, Numba Mwila, Richard Mwanza, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Kenan Simambe, Godfrey Kangwa, Winter Mumba, Patrick ‘Bomber’ Banda, Godfrey ‘Ucar’ Chitalu and Alex Chola
A 2-2 draw against the latter saw a shootout between the former and Zambia for top spot, and Christopher Katongo’s goal ensured the Chipolopolos progressed to the knock-out stages of the tournament as group leaders.
Sudan meanwhile had finished runners-up to Ivory Coast in Group B, which set up a quarter-final in Bata between them and the Group A winners.
The prospect of advancing to the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 1996 was the carrot that was dangled in front of Zambia. And whatever pressure that may have been associated with that, they did not let it show.
Katongo was again on target, this time with a strike after his penalty was saved, sandwiched in between Stophira Sunzu’s headed opener and James Chamanga’s third late on.
No doubt though that Zambia’s efforts were aided by Sudan defender Saif Eldin Ali Idris’ red card for a reckless challenge on Rainford Kalaba that led to Katongo’s penalty.
It was the sign that things had gone from bad to worse for Sudan, given that they had been forced into two first-half substitutions because of injury before Ali Idris was booked for a second time.
By this stage Zambia were beginning to attract attention, and even becoming neutrals’ favourite side, but their next opponent had captured the hearts of many football fans at the 2010 World Cup.
Asamoah Gyan and his Ghana side had garnered a following given their valiant displays in South Africa two years beforehand, but it was their attacking excellence as much as their flamboyant celebrations that people had fallen in love with.
Zambia certainly felt the full force of the former, with the four-time champions launching attack after attack and laying siege to the Zambia goal.
James Chamanga also netted in the quarter-final against 10-man Sudan with a strike late on
But much like the stoic resistance shown against Senegal, Renard’s team stood firm, although they had Mweene to thank in particular.
Having missed from the spot in normal time in their World Cup quarter-final defeat by Uruguay, Gyan had the chance to score a spot kick after Davies Nkausu had brought down former Juventus man Kwadwo Asamoah.
But this time Gyan was thwarted by Mwene, who got down low to his left to deny the former Sunderland man, before both teams missed gilt-edged chances through Katongo and Jordan Ayew.
Then that thing called fate – as well as a significant amount of quality – came a goal worthy of winning most matches, when substitute Emmanuel Mayuka fired into the bottom corner on the turn after holding off a Ghana challenge.
Zambia would once again face 10 men when Derek Boateng was sent off late on for Ghana, and for all their dominance and favourites tag in the contest, the Black Stars 30-year-wait for a continental trophy went on.
The Chipolopolo meanwhile reached the final of the competition for the first time since 1994, when they were defeated by Nigeria in Tunis. Jay Jay Okocha was in the winning side’s XI that day, but there were several Premier League stars involved in Zambia’s next final.
Kennedy Mweene saved Ghana forward Aasamoah Gyan’s spot-kick in the semi-final
Emmanuel Mayuka then came off the bench to shock Ghana with a fine finish after a swift turn
Ivory Coast had not – and would not – concede a single goal in the whole tournament, and their star-studded line-up included Chelsea’s Drogba and Salomon Kalou, Manchester City’s Kolo and Yaya Toure, Arsenal’s Gervinho, Newcastle’s Cheick Tiote, and Swansea’s Wilfried Bony.
They were keen to avoid a fourth straight tournament failure, having been strong favourites for every single AFCON since 2006. Yet Zambia had that visceral, emotional triumph in their sights too.
The squad gathered for a ceremony on the Beach Sabliere on the Friday before the final to pay tribute to their compatriots who lost their lives in the plane crash, singing and laying flowers as a mark of respect.
But having paid their respects off the field, it was time to play for them on it against the best who, as events would show, let the occasion get to them once in a while.
There was no barrage on the Zambian goal like there had been against Ghana. Nor was there the domination of possession that Senegal had demonstrated. Ivory Coast in truth never got going. The pressure was telling.
But there were nerves from Zambia too, with Renard furiously barking orders at and then pushing defender Davies Nkausu in the chest as he prepared to take a throw-in in front of the bench, after he had nearly let Gervinho create a clear goalscoring opportunity.
The Chipolopolo therefore reached the final of the competition for the first time since 1994
Zambia’s previous best finish had come in 1974 and 1994, when they finished runners-up
Perhaps however Ivory Coast’s modest display was partly down to their safety-first approach under Francois Zahoui too, constituting of sitting back, swallowing pressure and then capitalising on any mistakes the opposition made.
But that policy appeared somewhat to play into Zambia’s hands, and an early Katongo effort was enough to give them encouragement throughout what would be 120 minutes of nail-biting action.
Zambia’s talisman was in fact a menace down the right-hand side and caused plenty of problems, while Ivory Coast could coerce Zambia into few of their own, as their repetitive long-ball tactic into the box showed.
But that is not to say The Elephants did not have the chances to win it. The most presentable opportunity arrived when Gervinho was pushed over inside the box and the referee pointed to the spot.
But unlike in Munich a few months later in the Champions League final, Drogba stepped up and smashed his effort comfortably over the bar to leave his team and their fans all over the world stunned.
Zambia created chances of their own too, and had Boubacar Barry been off-colour like many of his team-mates a penalty shootout may not have been needed, remarkably saving Katongo’s poked effort in extra time onto the post.
Didier Ya Konan, Max Gradel and Rainford Kalaba all went close, but Barry v Mweene – Zambia’s commanding goalkeeper and most-capped player with 13 goals to his name in his career – would be the hero as it went to spotkicks.
But now they were given the chance to pull off the impossible against favourites Ivory Coast
To continue the emotional theme of the final, the Zambians took up positions on their knees, and sung together as the shootout commenced. It appears they were the only ones involved or watching who could manage to mutter a coherent sound.
Both sides initially refused to crack, with the first 14 kicks in the shootout converted, which included one from Drogba, while Souleymane Bamba was lucky to be given another go after Mweene was deemed to have encroached on his first.
But Mweene made no mistake when Kolo Toure stepped up, with the centre-back becoming the first of three players to miss in the shootout when he saw his effort saved low to the left.
With the shootout now in the sudden-death stage, talented winger Kalaba was a kick away from creating history. It was not meant to be just yet though, as he slashed over.
‘(My penalty) was supposed to be the winning goal,’ Kalaba said on the Zambian FA’s website. ‘These things happen in football, but then you have to move on. You just have to forget about the past and concentrate on the future.’
Luckily Mweene did. When a seemingly reluctant kicktaker in Gervinho – who appeared to refuse to go up before Toure – missed with a scuffed effort, Zambia were within touching distance again.
The team gathered for a ceremony to pay respects to their fallen compatriots before the final
And this time, an unassuming centre-back in Stopila Sunzu was the unlikely, but now much-heralded hero.
The players fell to their knees, praying once more for their companions who had perished nearly two decades ago, an iconic image of the tournament that showed their passing had not once left their minds.
‘The 1993 tragedy played its role. We weren’t favourites for the competition or the final, but we believed in ourselves,’ midfielder Isaac Cansa said.
‘It is no coincidence that we are here today, we have worked hard as a team,’ said Bwalya.
‘However, I am convinced that our dearly departed brothers who lost their lives here 19 years ago have lent us a helping hand.’
But it was not the only iconic moment in the aftermath, with Renard carrying injured defender Joseph Musonda down the sideline to allow him to join in with the celebrations.
And they would go on to beat Didier Drogba and Ivory Coast’s star-studded line-up
Reluctant spot kick taker Gervinho – playing for Arsenal at the time – missed his penalty
‘They found the strength, I don’t know where,’ Renard said. ‘There is something written somewhere. It just felt right but it was not because of me. I don’t know where it came from.’
Zambia have failed to reach such heights ever since, and their failure to qualify automatically for the latest tournament – having also not made it in 2017 or 2019 – is the latest sign of that.
They may still be handed a chance to participate in Cameroon, with Zimbabwe possibly facing a FIFA ban, but arguments about why they have failed to build on the 2012 success range from a poorly-handled changing of the guard and a lack of investment in infrastructure to a dearth of qualified coaches.
For the time being at least then, the 2012 AFCON will remain their proudest moment even if it appears to have lacked that seminal value. But it will not be vanishing from AFCON folklore anytime soon either, as arguably the most remarkable trophy-winning campaign from any side in history.
Stopila Sunzu then netted to spark wild celebrations between Herve Renard and his men
Zambia conceded just three goals in the whole tournament and captured many hearts
Zambia have failed to reach such heights ever since their remarkable journey 10 years ago