Can Chipolopolo rise from the ashes?

Zambia produced one of sport’s most heartwarming stories when they triumphed in Gabon, a country in which their golden generation perished 19 years earlier. Then it all went downhill.

The Africa Cup of Nations’ (Afcon) postponement to 2022 means that the next finals will take place 10 years after Zambia’s famous 2012 triumph. Since that success, Chipolopolo have had little to cheer about. But a revival could be on the cards.

Red Bull Salzburg duo Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu have grabbed headlines for their starring roles in the triumphant 2019-20 Austrian Bundesliga season. Daka picked up 24 goals and eight assists, while Mwepu was a regular in midfield.

However, their success has been overshadowed by Zambia’s failure to qualify for the last two Afcons. Defeats to Algeria (5-0) and Zimbabwe (2-1) in their first two qualifiers for the upcoming showpiece in Cameroon have left them with a mountain to climb.

Zambia’s next match-up in the Afcon qualifiers when international football returns is a double-header against Botswana, which could change the dynamics of Group H. Nevertheless, the challenges ahead for Chipolopolo extend beyond the field of play.

The national team recently faced the threat of Fifa sanctions after the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) was taken to court over alleged irregularities in their election process. A ceasefire was reached, however, after Damiano Mutale withdrew litigation. But that wasn’t the end of it as Mutale recently made threats to take those in charge to court. 

New dawn, same old sunset?

The Zambian government reportedly played a crucial role in resolving the matter with Fifa. However, they have had publicised contractual issues with coaches past and present to deal with too.

Milutin “Micho” Sredojević, who was announced as Chipolopolo coach on 3 February, had his two-year contract finalised only on 24 July as the government dragged its feet in co-signing it. The government had reportedly pledged at his unveiling to cover a portion of his salary while FAZ covers the rest. 

Former Chipolopolo coach Sven Vandenbroeck claimed to still be owed money from his time in the job. Meanwhile, another former occupant of the hot seat, Wedson Nyirenda, believes financial issues could be a major stumbling block for Zambia.

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“The machinery of football is players. If players will have nothing to worry about in terms of money, then all shall flow,” Nyirenda told New Frame. “Whatever Micho asks for in terms of team preparations must be availed to him without fail. If we create an environment that is football-fit, Zambian players always deliver. On top of all, Micho must not worry about salary issues. Let him be free-minded and it shall be well.”

Nyirenda has confidence in the former Orlando Pirates coach who left South Africa for Egypt’s Zamalek in the midst of an allegation of sexual assault. He took the Zambia job after being sacked in Egypt. 

“The chances for Afcon are not so good but attainable,” Nyirenda said. “As for the 2022 [Fifa] World Cup, I have all the confidence that given all the necessary support and facilities, Micho can do us great and qualify. The team I had built is no longer the same. Hence the coming in of Micho is a blessing in that he is going to build the team again.”

Passing on the winning formula

According to 2012 Afcon-winning defender-cum-midfielder Francis Kasonde, building from scratch is precisely what Zambia did in the eight years leading up to their famous triumph in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Much is made of the 1993 plane crash involving the Zambian national team at the time. Although their legacy may have helped Chipolopolo on to success, Kasonde is adamant their triumph 19 years later was no fluke.

“It didn’t start just in 2012. I think we were together for more than eight years. It [the 2012 success] was just a continuation from where we left off in 2010 in Angola,” says Kasonde. Chipolopolo were eliminated on penalties by Nigeria in the quarterfinals at that tournament.

“If someone got injured, you knew who was coming in. It really helped us,” he continues. “We stayed in Johannesburg for almost a month, I think [for a pre-tournament camp before Afcon 2012]. We were together and the atmosphere was good. 

“We had enough time to bond as a team. Most of us were coming from outside Zambia, so for maybe four or five months, we never met as friends … It helped us to talk and realise why we were there and what was expected when we went to the Africa Cup.”

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According to Kasonde, Zambia failed to prepare for life after the golden generation. “Like I said, we were together for some time, and most of the players were not ready to play for the next four years,” he says. “They were supposed to prepare another team to come and take over, but not to change at that point. They decided to drop almost all the players – maybe three or four remained … There was no group that was ready to take over.”

This is a view echoed by Mamelodi Sundowns goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, another stalwart from the class of 2012. Mweene is Zambia’s most-capped player, but has recently found himself out of favour.

“The generation which is coming up now, if we manage them properly, will go even beyond our generation,” Mweene tells New Frame. “If we don’t manage them properly, we will continue every year [to say that] we are building. Every coach who comes, [we will say] we are building. When are you going to build? Sometimes, when you are building, you have to finish the house. You can’t say every year that you are building.”

Mweene is of the view that players from the so-called “golden generation” should be brought into the camp to mentor youngsters. And they need not be given first priority in terms of playing time. Their mere presence ought to be enough.

“We’ve got youngsters who are playing Europe and a lot of them are doing well. Still, even if they are playing there, they need people to sit with them and make them understand [what it means to play for Zambia],” Mweene says. “You cannot build a team with a lot of youngsters. Even if you say we have to start from scratch, there is no way.”

Stability essential for national team

Hervé Renard, who led Zambia to glory, exited in October 2013 after two years as head coach, and since then, seven coaches have been in the hot seat. The continuity Kasonde and Mweene speak of has been lacking. Often, players have borne the brunt of this through inconsistent team selection. Mweene has arguably been a victim of this, as has one of his competitors, Polokwane City goalkeeper Cyril Chibwe.

Chibwe was under the impression that he was close to a national team breakthrough under Nyirenda. After Nyirenda left for Baroka, Chibwe had to wait a year and a half before making his debut. He was finally selected under Aggrey Chiyangi for the November defeat to Zimbabwe, but now faces an uncertain future following Sredojević’s arrival.

“The mood in camp has been high since I joined them. There’s a lot of positives I’ve seen and we have a blessed team,” Chibwe says. “In our last game, we were on top of Zimbabwe. It’s just that we were not lucky on the day.”

“More determination and more hard work is needed [to get back to the top]. Everyone in Zambian football needs to be pushing in the same direction.”

Chibwe is hoping for continuity in the coaching department going forward. “It’s very important, so players can get to know what the coach wants,” he says.

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Stability within Zambian football will not only take a strong national team coach, but also a league capable of producing players who add quality to the national team. A major point of debate currently is whether or not the Zambia Super League is too reliant on foreign imports. FAZ President Andrew Kamanga recently pledged to introduce a quota limiting the number of non-Zambian players per team.

Kasonde has mixed feelings about this proposed quota. “When it comes to entertainment, I think [the Super League] is doing fine. That’s why even SuperSport has come in to get the rights for the games,” he says.

“On the other hand, I think it has affected Zambian leagues, because they have so many foreigners … It has not given a lot of chances to the local players. This has affected the national team … I think it’s so interesting, because now you have different people from different countries with different styles.”

Kasonde expects upcoming FAZ elections to significantly affect the implementation of policies, but is unwilling to offer his thoughts on the recent threat of Fifa sanctions. “It’s a bit tricky for me, because I’m still playing,” he says.

The 34-year-old is more eager to discuss the next generation of Zambian footballers. Like Mweene, he believes they could excel if managed correctly.

“All you need as a nation is to invest more in the young boys,” he says. “The talent is there. They need exposure – to be taken to play outside Zambia, maybe into Europe. It will really help the national team to be where it’s supposed to be.”

The potential for a new dawn is evident, but it will take a united effort from all involved in Zambian football before the Copper Bullets can start shooting for silverware once more.

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