Min­nows may yet de­cide the destiny of Africa’s cup of dreams

The Star Late Edition - - SPORT - NJABULO NGIDI

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

pic­tured.

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. ODDS ON THE MIN­NOWS Guinea-Bis­sau 150-1; Zim­babwe 80-1; Togo 80-1; Uganda 50-1.

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