Zambia might be favourites for next weekend’s home game against Mozambique in the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, but coach Dario Bonetti sees it as a watershed moment for his loftier ambition of a place at the next FIFA World Cup™. “Everything depends on the next game,” he says of the Group C clash in Chingola against Mozambique on 4 June. “If we win the game it will put us well on the way to qualifying for the next African Nations Cup finals.”

And the former Italian international defender sees participation at the continental championship, which is being co-hosted next January by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, as vital to the growth of his side and the ultimate goal of being at Brazil 2014. “The experience of playing at the Africa Cup will give our young players the experience they need. We have a new and very strong generation,” said Bonetti, who is in his first national team position but has been coaching consistently for the last decade. “There is a good older generation in the team, but the new generation of players coming up behind them is very powerful. I’m talking about players between the age of 18 and 23.”

With a bit more exposure to the top levels of the game, the one-time Roma, AC Milan and Juventus central defender sees great things for his players. “Going to the Nations Cup will permit us the necessary skills to negotiate the World Cup qualification, and I think these players can take this country for the first time to a World Cup tournament. This is very possible,” he insisted.

There is a good older generation in the team, but the new generation of players coming up behind them is very powerful.

Dario Bonetti on the next wave of Zambian stars

Zambia are no strangers to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals, having been to ten of the last 11 tournaments. But Bonetti is talking about his side being competitive at the finals and challenging for the title. The 49-year-old says there is quality throughout the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) side, in every department from goalkeeper to strikers. “There is a good balance but obviously we need more experience, and specifically more experience under pressure. This is why it is so vital to qualify for the Nations Cup to expose the players to a more competitive environment,” he said.

A showdown looms
In their last six appearances at the Cup of Nations since finishing third in South Africa in 1996, Zambia have only once made it past the first round, in Angola last year when they lost to Nigeria on penalties in the quarter-finals. It is now almost one year since Bonetti took over as coach from Herve Renard, and he says he is satisfied with the first 12 months in charge, save for the disappointment of defeat to Libya in Tripoli last October in their AFCON qualifying group. It is a result that means Libya is top of the group standings and sets up the potential of a decisive tie between the two in the reverse fixture this coming October, which Zambia will host.

“Sure this will be a key game, obviously, but I’m confident you will see another team at the top of the group when it is finished,” he said. “My players will remember how they suffered when they were in Tripoli. More key is the immediate match against Mozambique, who are also a very good team, even if we beat them away in March.”
Bonetti, who coached in Scotland, Romania and his native country after his 15-year playing career, says African football continues to be on the march. “You find very good talent, and the football they play in Africa is becoming more and more competitive,” he said. “The key in future is to capture the resources of the country through academies and to ensure great teachers and coaches can teach these talented players when they are very young.

“I’m happy to be here and I’m grateful that the Zambian federation invited me for this experience because I’m working with very good talent, and I’m sure there will be great results in future. But everything really depends on how we do in the next game.”