As I’m sure you can imagine, right now I am a very proud man. To see the Zambian players lift the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in Gabon was a truly incredible moment for me, as I’m sure it was for every Zambian.
There are no short cuts when it comes to winning a major tournament like this. If you’re an underdog, sooner or later you will come up against the big teams and if you want to succeed, you have to be able to beat anyone. And that is exactly what we did.
This success has been the result of many years of planning, going back to Zambia’s failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. It was then that we went back to the drawing board and set out four points for the next five years:
- To take Zambian football into a new dawn, both on and off the field; nationally, continentally and globally.
- To galvanise the nation by re-igniting the passion of each and every Zambian for their national teams and clubs.
- To strive to attain the highest standard of football through sustained development, key partnerships and international exposure.
- For Zambian football to become a continental powerhouse and reclaim its rightful place in African football once again.
This dream was well documented and one that we followed for six years. We put various structures in place, we stuck to our beliefs and I am so happy to look back now and see all that hard work has paid off. Our vision has been achieved; now we have to work even harder to maintain and to improve.
Our biggest asset is our team spirit. The Cup of Nations winning squad isn’t full of superstars playing for top European clubs; it is a predominantly African-based group of players. Five of the squad are based at home in Zambia; eight in South Africa; and five with the DR Congo giants, TP Mazembe, while midfielder Jonas Sakuwaha is with Al-Merreikh in Sudan. Captain Chris Katongo and James Chamanga play in China and the young midfielder, Chisamba Lungu, is in the Russian second flight with Ural Sverdlovsk. Only the centre-forward, Emmanuel Mayuka, plays for a top-flight European club, Swiss side Young Boys.
But they are a very tight-knit team. The players all know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and that comes from having been developed as a unit over the past few years. We have generated a new crop of players, who are young and determined. As I said, we may not have big names, but we have a team unit, and teamwork is vital for success. You can list all the superstar players you like but if they can’t play together as a team, they won’t win anything. Our togetherness has been our defining strength at the Cup of Nations.
We are also blessed with a fantastic coach in Hervé Renard. He is very popular and respected among the players, but he is also not afraid to impose discipline. And perhaps most importantly, the players believed in and embraced his philosophy and tactics.
Hervé ensured the players were prepared for everything and anything. We rode our luck at times, but slowly the boys started to believe in themselves. We believed in the system we played, we believed in the tactical approach, we believed in the substitutions that were made at key points in games.
Before the competition, we told the players that we had one opportunity and that all we could do was give it our best shot. And as the competition progressed, the more they believed in themselves, the better they played.
Of course, it is particularly poignant that we were crowned champions just a few kilometres away from the exact location where my team-mates perished after their plane went down some 19 years ago. I thought it was important, before the tournament started, to tell the players that if we got to Libreville, it would be emotional because not a day goes past without us thinking about what happened in 1993. When we went to the Sabelir Beach in Libreville to lay wreaths in remembrance of the team that perished there, something truly magical happened. The loud single clap of thunder when we arrived, the curiously warm Atlantic Ocean water and the way in which the waves came up and took the wreaths straight back into the sea were all small, unexplained and enchanting signs that something special was happening.
Since that fateful day in 1993, there have been many highs and lows. But to finally be crowned champions of Africa is the ultimate tribute to those we lost that day. If they were still with us, they would be very proud of this team. Their dreams are our dreams, and the dream to become African champions has come true. For me personally, after reaching the AFCON final in 1994 as captain, with a brand new squad, and narrowly losing to Nigeria, to finally raise the trophy in Libreville at this year’s final is nothing short of the stuff dreams are made of.
We went to the Cup of Nations with humility and soulful inspiration; our boys were incredibly motivated and had great aspirations. Before the competition started, no one would have given us a chance. Now Chipolopolo have made history. Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
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