Nearly two decades after 18 members of Zambia’s soccer squad perished in an air disaster just off the Gabon coast, the landlocked southern African country returned to the scene of one of the world’s worst sports disasters to clinch its first African Nations Cup soccer title last Sunday.
Zambia became the 14th team to win the continent’s premier soccer crown, upsetting the Ivory Coast on penalty kicks in Libreville after the two sides failed to convert a goal in regular time and in the extra period.
This was the seventh time in the tournament’s 55-year history that the championship was decided by penalty kicks.
“I told them if we got to the final, we would play in Gabon where the plane crashed,” said coach, Herve Renard. “There was a special significance in that. They found the strength.”
The Ivory Coast is Africa’s top ranked International Soccer Federation (FIFA) team at #18 while Zambia, runners-up in 1974 and 1994, is ranked 71st in the world.
Renard said his team’s emotional victory was a huge achievement.
“This represents something enormous,” Renard said after his team’s triumph. “This was something which appeared unrealizable before the competition began. I know we’re not the best, but we have a strength and force that animated our team.”
On its way to the championship, Zambia disposed of Senegal 2-1, drew 2-2 with Libya, shut out co-hosts Equatorial Guinea 1-0 and overwhelmed Sudan 3-0 in the quarter-finals before defeating four-time champions Ghana 1-0 in the semi-finals.
Ivory Coast missed a golden opportunity in the final when skipper Didier Drogba sent a 70th minute penalty shot sailing over the crossbar. The favourites and 1992 champions were seeking to become only the third side to win the competition without conceding a goal. They achieved the feat 20 years ago followed by Cameroon in 2002.
The Ivorians beat Sudan 1-0, Burkina Faso and Angola 2-0 and Equatorial Guinea 3-0 in the quarter-finals before turning back Mali 1-0 in the semi-finals.
Despite the shock defeat, Ivorian coach Francois Zahoui said he’s proud of his team’s performance.
“We didn’t expect such a challenging final,” he said. “We go back to Abidjan with not too much shame. I think we played a good game. I congratulate Zambia.”
Zambia soccer federation president and 1988 African Soccer Player of the Year, Kalusha Bwalya, who was a member of Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, and fellow European-based players Johnson Bwalya and Charles Musonda, were not on the Zambian Air Force DHC-5D Buffalo plane that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after take-off on April 27, 1993. They were booked to travel directly to Senegal from Europe.
The squad was on its way to Dakar for a second round World Cup qualifier against Senegal just two days after shutting out Mauritius 3-0 in Port Louis in an African Nations Cup qualifying contest.
Manufactured by de Havilland Canada, the aircraft did not have a flight recorder. In 1976, the Zambian Air Force purchased the plane that was flown to Canada in September 1991 for a structural overhaul.
Mali, meanwhile, knocked off Ghana 2-0 in the third place play-off game. It was sweet revenge for the Malians who lost 2-0 to the Ghanaians in the group stage.
Held every two years since 1968, the tournament will switch to being staged in odd-numbered years so that it does not clash with the FIFA World Cup. The 29th edition of the competition takes place next year in South Africa.
And, former Trinidad & Tobago and English Premier League midfielder Dwight Yorke says he’s interested in the Sydney FC coaching job. The club’s coach, Vitezslav Lavicka, will leave the team at the end of the A-League season.
Yorke played for the Australian club in 2005-06 when it won the inaugural A-League. The 40-year-old Yorke played 232 matches for Aston Villa and 95 for Manchester United before shifting to Blackburn, Birmingham City and Sunderland. He has also played 72 internationals for T & T, scoring 19 goals.
Yorke will soon begin duties as assistant coach with Manchester United’s reserve team.
By RON FANFAIR