You Never Forget the First Time

They say football is no longer a mere sport or pastime. They say football is a dirty business, manipulated by money and invaded by televisions. They say everything is planned in football, and fans are all but unaware spectators of a show whose ending has been already conceived. Yet, football can shun interferences and give moments of cheerfulness and goosebumps, thanks to its (still existing?) unforeseeability and capacity to invent charming stories like a perfect minstrel.

The Africa Cup of Nations told the most recent fairytale, as Zambia lifted the trophy for the first time after beating Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties last night. The Chipolopolo triumph was sensational in itself, as the national team coached by 43-year-old Frenchman Hervé Renard was not considered a favourite when compared with long-experienced sides such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Mali. Indeed, the location made the success even more emotional and, possibly, moving. Zambia celebrated their historical first time in Libreville, Gabon, where nineteen years ago one of the most remarkable national teams tragically died in an air accident while going to play a match in Senegal.

Former Cambridge United coach Renard, who replaced ex-Dundee United assistant manager Dario Bonetti in the guidance of the national team last October, and his players spent the eve of the final match on a wild Libreville beach. Here, they placidly posed flowers in the water, giving them to the same sea which has embraced the bodies of their fellow countrymen. It was a moving moment especially for Kalusha Bwalya, current chairman of the national football federation and author of the historical hat-trick in the 4-0 victory against Italy in the 1988 Olympic Games. The clynical striker of that team, he did not get on board on that airplane as he was playing for PSV Eindhoven at the time and had to reach Dakar separately.

The souls of those compatriots appeared to have come back to life in Libreville, where the final was played under a misty rain. Doubtless, Zambia began with more intensity, maybe driven by the burning desire to honour those who in their homeland are still considered “fallen heroes”. Only one minute passed when the Zambians had their first clear chance, with midfielder Nathan Sinkala not giving too much power to his effort from the penalty spot.

Ten minutes later, defender Joseph Musonda, the oldest among Zambian players, had to leave the ground due to an injury while tackling opponent Gervinho. He cried like a baby, his team-mates and even Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba vainly attempted to consolate him (picture left). As fictional character Roy Batty reminds in the epic ending of “Blade Runner”, Musonda’s weeping could be “lost in time like tears in rain”. Somehow, the final match had to go on, even without him.

The first half only offered another pair of incidents. Top scorer Emmanuel Mayuka headed over the crossbar a smooth assist by indefatigable Chisamba Lungu, while on the opposite side a lavish heel-pass by Drogba was not converted into goal by midfield giant Yaya Touré.

Yet, Ivory Coast had the most tempting opportunity to rock the boat 20 minutes ahead of the final whistle. Arsenal forward Gervinho suddenly speeded his pace up, forcing opponents Isaac Chansa and Nyambe Mulenga to stop him by provoking a penalty kick. What could have been a historical moment for Drogba sadly became a dreadful one, as he missed his second 11-metre shot in the tournament firing the ball over the woodwork. Moreover, the final attempt by Max Gradel, who footed off the target, confirmed it was not an all but lucky night for the Elephants.

After goalless extra-time, the first one in this edition of the Africa Cup, the final match was decided on penalties. Almost surprisingly, two of the most valuable Ivory Coast footballers, Kolo Touré and Gervinho, did not score. Linked to the replacement of Salomon Kalou after 62 minutes and Yaya Touré before the extra time, and to the Drogba’s error, this proved that experienced players do not necessarily constitute the added value.

To the contrary, unknown heroes such as goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene and centre-back Stophira Sunzu were awarded their moment of glory. The former saved and even converted a penalty, the latter marked the historical moment scoring the 8-7 goal.

For his name was misspelled in Stoppila and Stopila by some notable British news organisations, Europeans should perhaps learn about African football more deeply than they actually do.

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