7 February ~ Zambia play Ghana in the first of the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals tomorrow evening. The Copper Bullets, nicknamed after the country's largest export, have never won the tournament, but are especially determined to succeed in this year's Cup. Should they beat Ghana, Zambia will play in Sunday's final in Libreville, the capital of Gabon and the site of a national tragedy for Zambian football. In 1993, 18 Zambia players died on their way to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal when their plane crashed moments after a stop-over in the Gabon capital. In Zambia, the word "Gabon" is now used as a slang term for a dangerously dilapidated vehicle.
Zambia coach Herve Renard, who began his managerial career at Cambridge United and was Ghana's assistant coach for the last Nations Cup, has played down his team's chances of reaching Sunday's final: "Ghana for me is the best team in Africa. They are the most consistent. They qualified for the World Cup in 2006 and were close to reaching the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup.”
But even before the tournament began, the Zambia players felt a sense of destiny could be leading them to a first Cup of Nations: "We are going to this tournament to put the souls of our fallen heroes to rest," said the goalkeeper, Kennedy Mweene.
The head of the Zambian FA, Kalusha Bwalya, also believes fate could be on the country's side. Kalusha was the country's captain back in 1993. The former African Footballer of the Year is only alive as he had to play for PSV Eindhoven before the World Cup qualifier and was not on the same plane as his team-mates.
Kalusha, driven by a desire to honour his fallen team-mates, led a second-string Zambia team to the final of the Cup of Nations in 1994, which they lost narrowly to Nigeria. He went on to win the golden boot in the 1996 Cup, when Zambia finished third, ahead of tomorrow night's opponents Ghana.
Kalusha player in six tournaments in all, but never with players as talented as those that were buried in the "Heroes Acre" outside the Independence Stadium in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. "It is my dream to win the Cup of Nations in Libreville because a great part of Zambian football history was written there. Imagine if we could lift the trophy, it would be a fantastic way to honour the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the land they loved." In the same way that Ghana represented an African success story in the 2010 World Cup, Zambia now play the role of underdogs with a sense of purpose on their side. Paul Campbell
Alive & Kicking
While almost all of Zambia will be watching the game, one woman and her team will be hard at work trying to help create a new wave of local footballers. Sughra Hussain runs Alive & Kicking Zambia, a social enterprise that manufactures FIFA regulation footballs in Lusaka. Based on the principle that trade, not aid, can help communities in the long term, their workshop is run as a not-for-profit business that sustains itself through sales revenue. Hussain's aim is to provide sustainable and fair employment for adults, increase health awareness and give the most disadvantaged children in Zambia the chance to play football: "We try to ensure children that cannot afford to buy sports equipment are not excluded from organised games. Every child should have the right to be able to emulate the nation’s current group of football heros. We are committed to helping grassroots development through provision of affordable and durable footballs. We can contribute towards one small part in the nation’s future soccer success.”
To learn more about Alive & Kicking click here