Minnows may yet decide the destiny of Africa’s cup of dreams
THE LOUD chants that will be the soundtrack to Gabon’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) campaign as the hosts, starting tomorrow against minnows Guinea-Bissau at Stade de l’Amitie, will drown the screams of anguish from Ivory Coast. Those screams are a result of the starstudded Elephants being stunned by an unfancied Zambia at that venue in the final of the 2012 Afcon Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea.
On a quiet day, those screams battle with Chipolopolo’s cheers, in a country that brought heartbreaking news in 1993 when Zambia’s golden generation perished on a flight to Senegal for a World Cup qualifier. Almost two decades later, heartwarming news came from Gabon to delight Zambians when their side won the Afcon for the first time.
Even though the Ivorians made up for that shock by beating Ghana in the final of the last Afcon, that defeat is part of the tournament’s folklore and should inspire the minnows to try and repeat it at Stade de l’Amitie, which will host this year’s final. Debutants GuineaBissau, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Togo are among the nations not given a chance to go far. Zambia were in a similar position five years ago.
Their captain, Chris Katongo, took offence at one journalist asking him who he was. He replied brashly: “Today, you don’t know my name but tomorrow you will.” The entire continent and football fans around the globe knew Katongo’s name after the tournament, which is probably why he was voted BBC’s 2012 African Footballer of the Year. He joined a list that includes names like Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Asamoah Gyan, Mohammed Aboutrika and Jay-Jay Okocha, African football royalty.
Katongo was a peasant outside Zambia when the 2012 edition started. He and his teammates thrived because of the unity and equality that French coach Herve Renard instilled in the team. When the talented Clifford Mulenga refused to apologise for breaking the team’s curfew, Renard sent him home. That decision, unpopular at first, sent a strong message that the coach was in charge and wouldn’t let anyone do as they pleased. It was a masterstroke because it showed that no one was bigger than the team. But Renard wasn’t a dictator, he listened to his players and allowed them to express themselves.
Callisto Pasuwa of Zimbabwe, Uganda’s Milutin Sredojevic and Guinea-Bissau’s Baciro Cande have those qualities as coaches. Claude le Roy, well, is Mr Claude le Roy, Appearing in his ninth Afcon, he can make 11 planks form a tough side to break down because of his wealth of experience.
Because of him, Togo can decide which team goes to the next round in a tough group that features Renard’s Morocco, an improving Democratic Republic of Congo and reigning African champions Ivory Coast.
Even if these four nations – Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Togo – aren’t African champions, they’ll play a small role in deciding who leaves Gabon as the champions.
They will be banana peels in groups where they aren’t given a chance to reach the last eight.