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14.03.2012 Opinion

A Zambian fairy tale at the 2012 African Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea

By Samwin Banienuba
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On 12th February the 2012 African Cup of Nations (Afcon) came to a festive end in the Gabonese capital of Libreville. What a memorable end it was! The colourful ceremony was a superb rendition of African culture at its best and a fitting eulogy to three weeks of fine African football and highly competitive games amidst camaraderie. It was however the epic penalty shootout in the finals in which the mighty Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire slumped to the spitting fire of the Copper Bullets of Zambia, also known as Chipolopolo that would be remembered from the rising of the sun in the East to whenever it sets in the West. It was a fairy tale victory with a big bang.

At the start of the tournament very few predicted the Copper Bullets could shoot their way to the quarter finals, the semis and then the finals let alone to lifting the trophy. They never featured as dark horses, least of all as favourites, and the reasons are not hard to find. Zambia had never won the tournament before and had only been to two finals. Neither did they have some of the household names in world class soccer in their team. Hence the odds were understandably against them while Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana were highly tipped as favourites with some expecting Senegal to spring the surprise if there was to be any. The Copper Bullets however pulled the trigger on all three and shot them down one after the other en route to the summit.

The spectacular fairy tale run began on 21st January when Zambia made mincemeat of the Teranga Lions of Senegal in their opening match with a 2-1 victory. Although Libya managed to pin them down to a 2-2 draw a resilient Zambia came tops after a 1-0 shot at hosts Equatorial Guinea in the group stages. It was the clearest signal indication that the Chipolopolo were in to spoil the party for the so-called big names in African soccer and reduce expert predictions to speculative banter.

After the group stages, the Nile Crocodiles of Sudan came next in the firing line of the Copper Bullets. It was the quarter finals and turned out to become their coolest of the games. They easily shot through sloppy Crocodile defences and cruised to a comfortable 3-0 victory. But at this stage some pundits began to predict the end of the fairy tale and with good reason. They would be proved wrong yet again.

Success over Sudan set the Chipolopolo up in the semis against the Black Stars of Ghana; four times Cup winners, quarter finalists at the 2010 World Cup and FIFA second best rated team in Africa. Against Zambia, Ghana indeed upped their game and played some of their finest football in the tournament. It was in vain despite dominance in all the departments. They even won a penalty but shot feebly into the hands of the ever agile Zambian goalkeeper. The Copper Bullets truly showed mettle, bid their time and finally carried the day deservedly with the only goal in the game.

With Ghana pushed aside the stage was set for the final showdown with the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire, the tournament leading favourite and the FIFA number one African team. Until this time, Côte d'Ivoire had indeed proven that no team crossed their path without been trampled, battered and bruised by the sheer force of their elephant might. But when Didier Drogba, by far one of the continent's sterling super strikers, missed a penalty in regular time it was all too clear that even the Elephants could be unnerved by the unstoppable ferocity of the Copper Bullets.

For the Zambians, Libreville provided the perfect motivational setting in which the finals was taking place. It was here, off the coast of Gabon that a plane crash in 1993 tragically wiped out a Zambian national squad, one of the most promising national teams in Africa at the time. The spiritual connection between the Copper Bullets on the pitch and the souls of their heroic predecessors was instant and inspirational. They raised their gaze beyond the sights of the Ivoirians and thus cracked the nerve of the Elephants in the epic penalty shoot out that followed the 0-0 draw at the end of

stipulated time. 8-7 it ended and the rest, they say, is history.

Suffice it to acknowledge and commend the Copper Bullets for their historic triumph. It was a Zambian Afcon, a fairy tale with a very beautiful ending. As Coach Herve Renard put it, they may not be the best in the continent but they had strength and character that animated the team to victory. They also took home a lion share of the tournament's awards. Captain Christopher Katongo got the Man of the Competition award, striker Emmanuel Mayuka took the Top Scorer award and four Zambians featured in the Team of the Tournament.

While squads like the Black Stars of Ghana and especially the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire may still be reeling with agony and disbelief for losing out big time, it will be many years before the Copper Bullets, and indeed the entire Zambian nation, can 'recover' from the euphoric bliss of winning the coveted prize for their very first time ever in Afcon history. More significantly, the souls of those who perished in the name of Zambian or African football in that 1993 tragic plane crash may finally rest in perpetual peace as the trophy was rightly dedicated to them in true African ancestral reverence. The African Cup could not have served a more healing purpose than it did in Gabon on 12th February 2012.

Congratulations Zambia! Congratulations Afcon! Congratulations Africa! Congratulations world soccer!

Samwin Banienuba(UK)
International Spokesperson for Humanitas Afrika

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