In 2012, Zambia achieved one of the biggest underdog stories in football when they won the African Cup of Nations. Here’s how it happened.
In the dying embers of the night on 12th February 2012, forty thousand people crammed into Gabon’s Stade d’Angondjé. They cheered. Prayed. Screamed. Some could not bare to look.
There was history to be made.
How it would be achieved depended on twenty-two players on the pitch.
Twenty-two players who had endured an exhausting battle. 120 minutes in total and a long tournament fighting Africa’s finest to reach the final.
Their fate now hung in the cruellest of destinies. The dreaded penalty shoot-out.
On one side, you had the Premier League super-stars of the Ivory Coast. On the other the Chipolopolos of Zambia with just one player in their squad who plied their trade in Europe.
No one had expected the plucky Zambians to come so far. And as the players prepared to walk the line, most would have favoured Ivory Coast’s golden generation to bring the trophy home.
But the Zambians had other ideas.
Gabon provided the setting for the 28th edition of the African Cup of Nations.
It was a country which evoked poignant memories for the nation of Zambia.
Almost twenty years prior, Zambia’s biggest footballing tragedy occured in Gabon.
In 1993, shortly after the Zambian national team took off from the central African country, their flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. There were zero survivors on board and thirty fatalities in total.
To return to the place where their predecessors perished was prophetic. Isaac Chansa remembers the preparations well.
‘The mood was very fine. It was good. Just from the preparation for the tournament,’ Zambia’s AFCON winner tells First Time Finish.
‘We were looking forward to the tournament because the coach had prepared us well. Especially for the first few games in the group stages, we knew those teams well.’
Zambian coach Herve Renard had just returned for his second stint in charge of the Chipolopolos. He had promised success. He had ambitions to return Zambian football to the prestige of the 1990s and the legacy of the sadly departed 1993 team.
But with almost no European representative in the Zambian squad, not many had favoured them to go all the way.
Isaac Chansa admits the feeling in the team was different.
‘Looking back at our performances in the 2010 tournament, we had hopes that this time around we could go all the way to the final.’
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In the first game of the tournament, Isaac Chansa and his teammates faced one of the favourites in Senegal.
This was a team of superstars. Players like Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse were darlings of Tyneside at the time having formed a formidable partnership in the Premier League.
Zambia were hardly fancied.
‘Before the game the coach Herve Renard used to tell us about Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba because he used to work with them in France. We knew what to expect,’ Chansa remembers.
‘Our preparation was intense so we were ready and focused during the game. We followed the game-plan and it went smooth.’
Herve Renard set-up a meticulous game plan. The Zambians camped in a defensive low-block and invited the Senegalese to bombard forward with relentless bouts of attacks to no avail.
Chansa and his team used their moments to exploit Senegal’s lack of defensive shape and countered well. It reaped Zambia two goals to secure a 2-1 victory. Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba were both nullified.
‘After the game, we thought we had a chance to qualify from the group, that’s what we were focusing on first. The win gave us a morale boost that we could do it,’ Chansa remembers.
Equatorial Guinea and Libya were easier candidates on paper and the Chipopolo’s overcame both challenges to qualify as the group leaders into the knock-out stages of the tournament.
Sudan did not provide any threats either. Zambia would advance for the first time in almost two decades to the semi-final of the competition.
A mighty challenge
In Zambia’s way stood an indomitable giant. The goliath of African football. Ghana were the darlings of the continent having won over the hearts of many with their valiant display at the World Cup just two years prior.
They were the team to beat and the heavy favourites.
‘The game against Ghana was something else,’ Isaac Chansa remembers. ‘That was our toughest game in the whole tournament.’
For 90 minutes Zambia withstood the barrage of attacks which came their way. Kennedy Mweene was impenetrable. The goalkeeper in between the sticks stifled Asamoah Gyan’s lethal efforts at the Zambian goal.
In the end, Zambia’s explosive counter-attacking style paid dividends. Emmanuel Mayuka nestled the ball into the back of the net to give Zambia a remarkable victory.
‘We were lucky and patient,’ Chansa remembers. ‘They were the best team, but because of our togetherness, and our belief in the coach’s game plan, we ended up pulling through and scoring on the break.’
‘Once we beat Ghana, we told ourselves this was our time. Before even going to the final. We told ourselves God had given us this tournament.’
‘Herve Renard made a huge difference. He changed our mentality,’Isaac Chansa remembers in awe of his former coach.
Renard with his stylish good-looks, Hollywood hair and chiselled jaw hardly resembles the traditional ‘tough’ guy, but the Frenchman is a coach with a distinctive style.
He understood the strengths of the Zambian players. Renard saw their fighting spirit and their boisterous energy and he had a knack for bringing the best out of them.
‘He is a coach who loves hard-work,’ Chansa recalls. ‘He still wakes up early in the morning to go running and he expects the same work-rate from his players. Renard really pushed us in the training sessions.’
Zambia’s energy and refusal to succumb under pressure thanks to Renard’s methods was the reason they were able to march into the final
And an even mightier challenge awaited the plucky underdogs there.
The Golden Generation
Perhaps there has never been a greater side assembled on the continent of Africa, filled to the brim with stars, than Ivory Coast’s team of the late 2000s and early 2010s.
In 2012, their line-up included Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure, Yaya Toure, Gervinho, Cheick Tiote, Emmanuel Eboue, Salomon Kalou and Wilfried Bony.
But it did not faze, Chansa or his teammates.
‘We said okay Ivory Coast have big stars and big names. It was a motivation for us to play against them and to beat them.’
As ever Renard prepared them with every attention to detail.
‘The coach said before the match, let’s play our normal game. Obviously these guys are big names, they are ahead of us in thinking. But let’s show them what we have, the fitness, the commitment, the togetherness, the unity, and that’s what we did.’
The match of a life-time
The Chipolopolo stars showed exactly that. Ivory Coast had no idea what to expect. Their key stars like Drogba and Toure struggled to break down the rigid and sturdy Zambian defence.
‘At half time the coach told us, these guys are getting tired, and you are the fittest team on the tournament, so let’s take them on. They will get even tired, if we can take them onto extra-time I’m sure we will beat them on penalties,’ Isaac Chansa recalls his coach’s prophetic words.
During the break and throughout the entire tournament, Chansa remembers how his team were spurred on by the perpetual encouragement pouring in from their native land.
‘The support back home was crazy. We were constantly receiving phone-calls and messages, the people were crazy because it was our first time in the final for a long time.’
As the game dragged on and on, Ivory Coast started to wilt. Just after the hour mark Didier Drogba carved an opening and the Ivorians won a penalty. But it sailed over the bar.
Unlike the Zambians, these Ivorians were expected to win. There was pressure back home. This was the country’s golden generation, yet for almost 6 years they had produced nothing but disappointment in international competitions.
2012 was seen by many as now or ever for the golden generation to bring glory to the nation.
‘You could see the pressure on them (Ivory Coast players),’ Isaac Chansa recalls. ‘You see in football it’s easy if you are playing a big team, you’ll be able to know the players and what they are like. We were underdogs and they didn’t know anything about us. They had no idea what to expect.’
‘We were small but very hungry for success.’
And so 90 minutes came to end. Another 30 minutes of hard-fought battles ensued, ended by the shrill whistle of the referee, Badara Diatta, to herald the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
The walk to the penalty spot from the half way line is precisely 42 metres.
On your way you don’t hear the cheers of the crowd or the jeers.
You just try to concentrate on the ball and the keeper eyeing you like a hawk.
That’s exactly what Isaac Chansa did.
‘During our preparation in South Africa, we used to practise penalties,’ he recalls.
‘We practised them almost every single day, just for fun. We had no idea that one day we would play to win the final on penalties.’
The previous practises helped to calm the nerves.
‘The pressure was not there, because the whole team felt good about the penalties, because of our preparation. We had every confidence we would score.’
The Zambians broke out into song amidst the shoot-out. You could hear them on the side-lines and on the pitch. The entire squad chorused in sombre tones. The experience gave them a sense of unity and togetherness at a time when a player can feel the most alone on the pitch.
‘Even for myself, going to shoot I had no pressure. I remember praying, calling to God to be on my side.’
And as he walked up. Chansa tried to focus.
‘I was concentrating on the moment, singing in my head, looking at the goalkeeper and picking my spot. I put a bit of power and thankfully the keeper went in the wrong direction.’
In the end, the penalty shoot-out dragged on for a remarkable 18 minutes. Each side took 9 penalties in total. And as the minutes dragged on, the praying and the singing of the Zambians only amplified.
‘The singing helped us to believe, what ever you believe in God sees the heart of the person and if you believe in him he will always favour you.’
‘Before the match in the dressing room, the coach wrote that: Today was our day. On the 12th February we are going to make history. We are going to be remembered in the history books of Zambian football. That was his message to us. His encouragement before we stepped onto the field,’ Chansa remembers.
Even though things had gone in the way Renard had expected for Zambia. In that gruelling 18 minutes, even his steady head must have had some doubts.
But as Gervinho scuffed his effort over the bar and the Zambians had their second chance to win the tournament, Renard must have suspected his premonitions would come true.
Stopilla Sunzu stepped up for Zambia. And the game was over. Chansa still lights up as he recalls those final moments of the game.
‘That moment was crazy, I believed that this was our moment and then finally it came true. I could not believe it at first that we had done it. It was over. We were Champions.’
‘As we were running to celebrate together, I broke into tears of joy, celebrating talking to myself and god.’
‘After the game in the dressing room, we all looked at the words the coach had written and told ourselves that when you believe in something it will surely come to pass.’
Back home, hordes of people welcomed the Zambian heroes. There were jubilant celebrations.
‘Our reception was something else. I will never forget it. We were received by so many people. The whole airport was full. On the road people were so fully of joy. It was amazing.’
Eight years on the tournament is indelible to Zambian football. There are hopes, that the legacy of Chansa and his teammates can inspire a new generation to glory.
‘I talk to the younger ones. Encouraging them and helping them for advice in their careers. You know people like Fashion Sakala and Patson Daka. With Patson we were together in the national team, and I remember one phone call when he was dropped from the team back in 2016, and I told him not to give up and keep going. He’s a hard worker I can tell you.’
It isn’t just Daka or Sinkala, Zambia are blessed with an impressive list of talented young players plying their trade in Europe.
Players like Enock Mwepu, Edward Chilufya and Emmanuel Banda are all playing at strong European clubs and are under the age of 23.
There are hopes that more will follow soon.
And with the legacy of their predecessors they will be well placed to emulate Zambia’s 2012 heroes.