wsc302Scott Sloan on Zambia's Africa Cup of Nations triumph from inside the country

As I lay in bed in downtown Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, a lonely vuvuzela pierced the night. It would only get worse. As each game progressed, the nightly noises would build to a crescendo: whistles, singing, dogs howling and horns honking. Lusaka was quiet before each game, but after the final whistle, the city would exhale as tensions lifted. Another game over and an even greater belief that anything is possible.

Zambia had their fair share of controversies. They should never have made it this far. The team's preparations were not helped by in-fighting over political ties to the football association, allegations of corruption and the resignation and later reinstatement of the manager, Hervé Renard.

The squad was hardly littered with renowned names. The players based abroad are mostly in South Africa, DR Congo and China. Those at home are with government institutions (the national energy company Zesco) or mining teams (Mining Rangers) in remote areas of the country. The domestic league is dogged by a lack of amenities and well-maintained sports grounds. Only recently did they acquire a stadium fit for international competition, a gift from the Chinese government.

Aside from reaching the quarter-finals of the previous tournament, Zambia had failed to make it past the group stage of the African Nations Cup in 16 years. This year's tournament was made more significant by the 1993 air disaster in the host nation, Gabon. After taking off from Libreville, the city that would host Zambia's final with Ivory Coast, a military plane carrying most of the squad crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 30 people on board, including the 18 players, were killed. The word "Gabon" has since been slang in Lusaka for a dangerously dilapidated vehicle.

Under strict discipline, typified by the sending home of Clifford Mulegna for refusing to apologise for breaking his curfew, the team negotiated a tricky group stage. They looked to be enjoying themselves too. The players celebrated goals with an exaggerated shush sign, a reference to Dandy Crazy's song Don't Kubeba, the unofficial election anthem of the Patriotic Front, who returned to power last year. The shush sign compels voters to pretend to be on the side of the former governing party if offered handouts, but to vote for their rivals. Even Zambia's former president, Rupiah Banda, danced to the song at a lunch held in honour of the team.

When the team made it to the quarter-finals, each and every volunteer, ex-pat and diplomat was proudly Zambian. Daily conversation started to begin and end with a discussion of their chances. Cheap national team shirts from China flooded into the city as cafes, bars and offices adopted them as their daily work wear. Taxis and buses underwent full body resprays, taking on the form of mechanical, roving national flags.
As the team progressed, confidence grew. This was not a lucky team. They were scoring goals, keeping clean sheets and looked united. When Stoppila Sunzu hammered home his sudden-death penalty in the final, there was a sense of euphoria and disbelief, followed by utter confusion. How would I get home? Who would possibly turn up for work in the morning? It was clear, there was going to be an unofficial national holiday.

I was watching at a friend's restaurant, avoiding the packed bars of the earlier games for safety and a chance to actually see a television screen. Plans were made to stay on sofas, hammocks and porches within close to the restaurant. There was pandemonium on the streets. Wrapped in a Zambian flag, I rode my motorcycle to a friend's place a few streets away. The only car I passed ran straight through a four-way stop sign, with its horn blazing and no lights on.

The team were scheduled to arrive home the next day. No one knew when they were coming, but the public showground in the city centre was packed and rocking from noon. I waited all afternoon as the streets outside filled up to receive and cheer on the team from the airport. As each hour passed, the crowd of 20,000 fans surged ever closer to the makeshift stage, on which the vice president was to speak.

It was clear, as the team arrived around 6pm, that nothing would stop the crowd from mobbing their heroes. The trophy was raised in triumph. As the crowd, which had been waiting all day in the hot sun, began to disperse through the narrow exits of the stadium, swinging police batons brought an end to the two days of partying. For many Zambians, a blow to the head could almost been considered a plucky souvenir of the times. I did not want to get close enough to consider. "Gabon" is no longer a bad word among Zamibians.

From WSC 302 April 2012

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