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Posted Nov 01, 2012



It is hard to be Zambian and not be excited about the prospects of our national soccer team at the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations tournament. The continent’s premier annual soccer event kicked off in South Africa yesterday with many pundits either writing off our chances this time round or simply ignoring us as a factor in the line up of tournament favourites. Many have adopted the assumption that our status as current champions will be remembered as a short-lived aberration – a fluke. We can’t let that happen. It is our collective responsibility as players, coaching staff, fans and citizens to show the continent and the world, how wrong this assumption is. That is why I am taking an unusual deviation from politics to write about football.

The task ahead for our national team – Chipolopolo – is not an easy one. Not only will Zambia be joining a select group if it wins the tournament (only three nations have successfully defended the trophy: Egypt (1959, 2008 and 2010), Ghana (1965) and Cameroon (2002)) but she will, in some way, be seeking to claim a much sought after quality that has eluded us ever since the death of nearly the entire national team in the unforgettable tragedy over the skies of Gabon: international respect and recognition as a football powerhouse.

If we are to claim our place among Africa’s best at this tournament, we must draw lessons from the first victory that can serve us well if we pay heed to the factors that made it all so special the last time round. I believe there are three things the Chipolopolo boys can do: (1) make every effort to rekindle the magic that brought the trophy to our country for the first time in 15 previous attempts – the magic of Gabon; (2) play as a team rather than as individual stars; and (3) not get too cocky. The first of these will be hard but not impossible. The second will simply require discipline, while the third will require the team to summon a quality that is not always readily available amongst men: humility.

In rekindling the magic of Gabon, we need to realise that nothing could have motivated our players more than knowing deep within their very souls they would be performing a sacred duty in honouring the lives of those that died, by bringing the trophy home. Just as the death of a loved one can alter a person’s mindset and bring about a superhuman determination, playing within driving distance of the crash site of the Gabon victims produced a compelling spirit within the camp to win. Rekindling this emotion will not be easy but it can and must be done. The players need only remember that nothing would be more fitting as an accompaniment to the first victory than to win again and to win in style.

If the first victory honoured the memory of our fallen heroes, the second victory should demonstrate that such an honour runs deeper than that moment and is something etched into the hearts of our nation. Somehow coach Herve Renard will have to simulate the emotion of Gabon and harness it to propel Chipolopolo forward with a “never-say-die” spirit. Let them imagine that they are right back in Gabon, fighting to make history to honour our fallen heroes.

The second lesson is something that the Ivory Coast never understood at the time but will be much more aware of now. Chipolopolo were a team that had been playing well together as a team for some time. Zambia had no real stars among its ranks to speak of. There were no English Premier League soccer stars to boast of, none of the players were regulars in La Liga or Serie A. Our lads were largely products of local leagues and an admittedly re-emergent TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal were able to showcase a bevy of past and future stars plying their trade in these highly rated world football leagues. The difference? Zambia fielded a star team while the others fielded a team of stars.

This is something quite interesting when you think about it. Whenever Zambia has done well in the continental tournament, the success has generally been a time when the team is coming together for the first time. In 1974 in our maiden appearance, we reached the final in Egypt and lost to Zaire (now DR Congo). After the loss of the entire team off the coast of Gabon, we were able to reconstruct a team at short notice that lost 2-1 to a ferocious Nigeria in the final. I remember watching with my heart in my mouth as Kalusha Bwalya’s shot hit the bar with a few minutes to spare, taking on the responsibility of single-handedly taking the game into extra time for his fallen friends. But it was not to be.

The third lesson is one that underpins all sustainable success – humility. This is not the same thing as asking Chipolopolo to be timid. Far from it. A Harvard study on leadership that was based on research undertaken in 1996 by Jim Collins (who eventually wrote a book about it), stumbled upon a surprising fact: each company that they studied that had gone from poor (or average) performance to sustainably exceptional results had one thing in common – a leader with two seemingly contradictory qualities: extreme personal humility and intense professional will. When our boys play with purpose and determination but couple it with our Zambian sense of respect, they are both amazing and unstoppable. The team that plays with professional determination, purpose and humility is the team that will carry the day and probably the trophy. When they are at their best, as they have already demonstrated, Chipolopolo are unstoppable. That is what they must be from the first whistle of every game to the very last.

It is important to understand that it takes time to earn respect. A good reputation can take several years to build and it must be protected by consistent performance. A good reputation, particularly in soccer, cannot be built over 12 months.

As a nation, we owe so much to the 50 or so men and women who made up the total team that brought us victory at AfCON 2012 – the players, the coaching staff, the football administrators that worked like a well-oiled machine to deliver a victory no one but either the very brave or the very foolish would have predicted. And yet there it was, with 7 successful shots apiece, as Stopila Sunzu trundled over to the penalty spot to take his turn to write his name into the pages of African football history, he could have had no idea that with that shot, he would also write Zambia’s name in the stars. It’s time we repeated that success.

We wish Chipolopolo the very best at AFCON 2013.

Elias C. Chipimo


National Restoration Party