It’s been nearly a week and I still have not quite absorbed Zambia’s epic shootout victory over Côte d’Ivoire in the African Cup of Nations final in Libreville last Sunday.
First there is the way that Zambia won, which is to say, the game itself. Perhaps for many people the prospect of a 0-0 game is simply not all that exciting. But in a finals a scoreless tie is excruciatingly enthralling because the consequences of any given goal are so great. When Les Elephants’ and Chelsea’s superstar Didier Drogba geeked a penalty in regulation time, it seemed that the football gods were continuing to smile on Chipolopolo. Zambia’s “Copper Bullets” had made a magical run through the CAF when almost literally no one outside of Zambia had them advancing as far as the quarterfinals. Then there were the two halves of extra time. Still no scoring. And so the teams headed for penalties. 18 penalty shots and only one Zambian miss later and one of the greatest upsets, indeed one of the greatest stories, in recent sports history was complete. Zambia had won. And they had defeated a Côte d’Ivoire team swarming with global superstars. They were, and are, the African champions.
A week later it still baffles the imagination.
Football is the world’s most popular sport. And there is a case to be made that no continent more fully embraces soccer as its favorite sport than Africa. With scant exceptions — distance running in Ethiopia and Kenya, rugby among whites in South Africa– soccer is far and away the most popular sport from the Maghreb to the Cape. There are swaths of Europe where other sports — rugby in parts of Italy, England, Scotland, France and so forth, skiing throughout Alpine nations, hurling and Gaelic football in Ireland, and so forth — are incredibly popular. There are parts of Latin America where baseball reigns supreme or at least vies for supremacy with futbol. Not so in Africa.
And of course on the whole Africa is the poorest continent with some of the greatest political and socio-economic difficulties on earth. And so something like winning CAF is huge both from a sporting vantage point and in terms of what it means for a society. So when a team like Zambia finishes an underdog run as they just did? Well, it is no exaggeration to say that if I could have been anywhere on earth a week ago, I wish I could have been in Lusaka.
And of course Zambia’s story is made all the more special, not to mention poignant, by the ironies and coincidences inherent in tragedy. On April 27, 1993 the national team was en route to Senegal for a qualifying match for the 1994 World Cup. Soon after taking off from a refueling stop in, of all places, Libreville, the scene of last Sunday’s heroics, the plane crashed, killing all aboard. Kalusha Bwalya, the 1993 team’s captain, arguably the greatest player in Zambian history, and the president of the Zambian football association today, was not aboard that plane as he was returning from the Netherlands where he played for PSV. That Bwalya was there and played such a prominent role in overseeing this year’s team must have been a moment of profound pride but of equally profound grief.
There will be another tournament in just a year. South Africa will host. While the tournament happens biennially, officials have chosen to change the tournament to an odd-numbers year format, so Zambia will only have a year, rather than two, to celebrate. But future tournaments will be hard pressed to surpass the events of this past month and the improbable Zambian triumph stands as the reason why. For Zambians, anyway, this year’s squad will be champions forever.