To qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations 2013, was no mean feat. Zambia had to work extremely hard for the right to defend its title. Football today is tougher than people know. It is interesting that Egypt—AFCON winners in 2006, 2008 and 2010—was absent in 2012 and will again miss out on next year’s tournament after being defeated by minnows Central African Republic.
There are no longer weak teams in Africa. African football has become unpredictable. On no other continent, do rankings mean so little. FIFA rankings can be misleading because friendly matches also count, which means that football associations with larger budgets can afford more significant high-profile friendlies, earning them false gradings. My opinion is that rankings should only be calculated through official qualifying international matches. If one were to use rankings as a true measure for the grading of teams, how do you explain the likes of Ethiopia, which is ranked 33rd and Niger ranked 42nd in Africa qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations, over Egypt, Senegal and Cameroon? Each of these teams is brimming with international stars.
In order for Zambia to qualify for the AFCON 2013 we were drawn against Uganda—a team ranked 22nd in Africa and 90th in the world. As African champions, we went into this battle confidently, yet cautiously. Uganda had a track record of being unbeaten in Kampala. They are also reigning CECAFA, Eastern and Central African champions.
The AFCON qualifying format is home and away. Chipolopolo went into their home game to a capacity crowd at Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola, with only one thing on their minds: to score enough goals to win the game outright. Zambia won the game 1-0, yet were left with a dangerously narrow comfort margin.
In Kampala, we were confronted by a formidable Ugandan team. A team that never let up; a team that kept their shape and that fought until the bitter end, which ended in a 1-0 win to Uganda. Notwithstanding, with an aggregate score of 1-1, we went into penalties. Zambia’s composure and big match temperament paid off in the end, Zambia winning 9-8.
The Africa Cup of Nations was always a very exciting period throughout my career. I relished the opportunity to represent my country and did so with enthusiasm and ambition. All the effort, preparation and sacrifice is rewarded with incomparable satisfaction. National pride and honor are the greatest incentives.
Becoming continental champions is the ultimate goal for any football association. As the Zambian Football Association president, Zambia winning this coveted title in 2012 filled me with immense pride and satisfaction.
The 2013 edition of this prestigious tournament will be held on South African soil. A host most worthy of this tournament after staging one of the most successful World Cups, in 2010. The world-class infrastructure that exists in South Africa is hard to beat.
The final 16 teams have qualified, the groups have been formed and the battle lines drawn. Next year’s tournament will see the return of powerhouses such as Algeria and the Super Eagles of Nigeria. Rookies Cape Verde, which qualified by overcoming the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, proved that no country is to be underestimated.
In fact, there are probably eight or nine countries which could conceivably become the champions. Zambia proved, in 2012, that a happy camp and a good result first up, builds momentum that can see a less fancied side go all the way.
Certainly, Zambia believed it had a squad capable of winning the tournament, but not many outsiders gave us a chance before the event. Now we go into this tournament with a weight of expectation both at home and across the continent. Many have become new fans of Chipolopolo, after what was achieved in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Group A hosts South Africa and Morocco, are probably the two favorites to advance, but Cape Verde has made great strides, in recent years, and even Angola has a squad, which can surprise.
Bafana Bafana has proved to be very difficult to beat at home. Over the last 20 years, they have lost just a handful of times to African opposition in South Africa. Morocco underachieved in 2012, of that there is no doubt, and their squad is better than recent results suggest.
Group B features perennial favorites Ghana and Mali, who finished third in 2012. They are two very good sides and it is hard to see past them when looking for candidates for a quarter final spot. But the Democratic Republic of Congo has been buoyed by the recent success of TP Mazembe in the CAF Champions League with coach Claude Le Roy, a seasoned tactician, who served as mentor to Zambia’s Hervé Renard. Niger is not the same force outside of Niamey as they are at home.
Zambia were the top seeds in Group C, as defending champions, and they have been drawn in a difficult pool. Nigeria is an obvious threat, though they are rebuilding under Stephen Keshi, while Burkina Faso can be a match for anyone on the day. Ethiopia has held South Africa and Nigeria in recent times and did very well to get past Sudan in the qualifiers. They will be no pushovers.
Group D could be the Group of Death. This could be the final chance for CÔte d’Ivoire’s golden generation to win the Africa Cup of Nations and it is something Didier Drogba is desperate for. He has had so much success at club level in his career, it seems incredible that he may end his glittering career without a Nations Cup win.
Algeria has proved to be one of the top teams on the continent since the last Nations Cup, while Tunisia may not have the strength of old, it still has some top individuals. Togo make a welcome return after the horror of the events preceding the tournament in Angola in 2010 when their bus was attacked by guerrillas. I think the whole of Africa is glad to see them back on this biggest of continental stages.
The open nature of the field, the wonderful stadia and surroundings, and the passion of the African people for football will, I believe, make this one of the best Africa Cup of Nations tournaments in history. African football is on the rise and this is our chance to prove this to the rest of the world.
May the best team win!