Zambia stayed awake in an impressive victory over Sudan to move one win away from an emotional African Cup of Nations final and within reach of a first-ever title.
Zambia’s flamboyant French coach Herve Renard said Sudan was capable of putting his team “to sleep” in the quarterfinals, but his players were alert and on-form throughout a convincing 3-0 win in Bata to move to the brink of the country’s third final—and the chance at a long-awaited debut triumph.
Zambia last played in the deciding match at the African Cup in 1994, yet 1993 has provided a more poignant motivation at this tournament as the year the nation lost one of its best-ever teams in a plane crash near the Gabonese capital Libreville.
Zambia must now beat four-time champion Ghana or Tunisia in the semis to return to Gabon for the Feb. 12 final and have another chance at lifting the trophy.
The Zambians surged through in a potentially tricky encounter against Sudan at Estadio de Bata to reach the last four for the first time in 16 years.
“It was quite a difficult game. We’d studied this team, we knew that they were capable of putting us to sleep. We did fall asleep at some moments,” the ever-demanding Renard, who led Zambia to the quarters in 2010 in a previous spell in charge, told the tournament’s official website.
Zambia’s form at the African showpiece has dipped in recent years, with a run of first-round exits over the last decade before the quarterfinal appearance two years ago. But its past achievements at the African Cup have long been underestimated, despite having made the final in 1974 and again, incredibly, in ’94 in the wake of that tragic plane crash.
It also finished third in 1990, went to the quarterfinals in 1992 and was third again in 1996. All that’s missing is an overall triumph.
“We are not afraid of any team,” Renard said, adding that the Zambians had achieved their target of a place in the semifinals. They could now play with dangerous freedom in the last four.
There are no stars in the team and while that’s often the case with African hopefuls, Zambia has made it work and managed to progress at the Cup of Nations more often than not with a little-known group of players.
All but four of Renard’s 2012 squad play club football on the African continent. Even the foreign-based members turn out for unglamorous clubs like Russia’s Ural Oblast. Christopher Katongo, the captain and now joint-leading scorer at the competition, is at China’s Henan Construction.
“(We) have an advantage with players who have been together for a long time,” Renard said. “We have no big names and the star is the team. Players like Emmanuel Mayuka, (Christopher) Katongo and Kalaba (Rainford) are often underrated because they are not playing in major leagues abroad, but they are very good players.”
Zambia has drawn inspiration for its best performance in nearly two decades from the memory of the players who died off the coast of nearby Libreville, but also from Renard, who returned as head coach late last year.
Zambia was coached by Dario Bonetti, but was playing joyless football under the Italian.
Now, the Frenchman is back, bringing his floppy blonde hair, flamboyant touchline antics and lucky white shirt—which he has worn for every game at the tournament—with him.
In many ways, Zambia is back as well.
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