The 2012 African Cup of Nations is over. Sad, I know. But Zambia might see things a bit differently.
Until this past Sunday, only eight nations -- Egypt, Tunisia, Cameroon, South Africa, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Algeria and Ghana -- have won Africa’s premier continental tournament since 1980. That’s sixteen tournaments won by eight teams, which only tells part of the story since Egypt has won five of the titles, Cameroon close behind with four, followed by Nigeria with two. This concentrated group largely represents the African powerhouses over the last three decades. Amazingly, five of these eight nations failed to qualify for the 2012 tournament.
The story has been told repeatedly over the last month. En route to Gabon for the 1993 African Cup of Nations, eighteen members of the Zambian national team perished in a plane crash. It was a devastating moment for the southern African nation, and particularly painful because of the lofty expectations Zambians had for what was their most talented team to date.
National teams often sweat over the loss of great players to retirement. So imagine the magnitude of Zambia losing eighteen of its best players on one day. Forever. Coming out of retirement one last time to assist the homeland no longer an option. The thought of such a tragedy cripples the spirit.
Since that tragic day, Zambian soccer has been a marginal presence in the African game. Although Zambia impressively continued to regularly qualify for subsequent African Cup of Nations tournaments, Zambian players have failed to make a mark outside of the country in comparison to the host of African players who have become internationally recognizable figures over the last two decades. A quick glance at the Zambian roster for the 2012 tournament shows a continuation of that pattern, revealing unfamiliar name after unfamiliar name to those who don’t pay close attention to African soccer.
In 2012, Zambia was once again en route to Gabon for the African Cup of Nations. The significance of the team’s return wasn’t lost on the group. You could see it in the way they played from the first whistle. Zambia didn’t play as if preoccupied with a morbid saga; they played enthusiastically with the panache of a team that wasn’t aware it was supposed to curl up in the fetal position against the continent’s best. Zambia marched through the tournament on the way to the title like a circus, ignoring degrees of difficulty, smiling, flipping, sticking landings and dancing from their opening game upset of Senegal, to the final whistle when they humbled tournament favorites Côte d’Ivoire.
Plenty of interviews and game recaps can be found online chronicling Zambia’s impossible victory. But the same stories can be found in the team’s goals and celebrations.
The following clips summarize Zambia’s play throughout the tournament. Powerful, direct, confident, and joyous. There was only one team that was going to be crowned African champions this year, and none of its players were superstars. They played as a collective, and they danced as a collective.
Congratulations to Zambia, the 2012 African Cup of Nations champions. Here are all their tournament goals and the final celebration. And yes, it does seem like handspring proficiency is a requirement to be an attacking player for Zambia.
1. Zambia v. Senegal (group stage)
2. Zambia v. Libya (group stage)
3. Zambia v. Equatorial Guinea (group stage)
4. Zambia v. Sudan (quarter-finals)
5. Zambia v. Ghana (semi-finals)
6. Zambia v. Côte d’Ivoire (final): After the final whistle, Zambian coach Herve Renard carries Joseph Musonda (injured during the match) to the celebrations. I suppose “celebrate together” really was the theme.