Just when it seemed that Didier Drogba and Côte d’Ivoire would finally be crowned continental kings, Zambia stepped in to swipe their first CAF Africa Cup of Nations. A penalty shoot-out triumph on Sunday after a nervy, scoreless final made the south Africans the 14th nation to win the event. A team without major international stars, Zambia left little doubt that they were worthy champions, and that the continent now has another heavyweight to consider.
Passionate French coach Herve Renard told everyone about the underdog talent of his team, and they eventually proved him right. It was touching that the final came in Gabon’s capital, which is near the site of a tragic plane crash that killed much of the beloved Zambian national team in 1993, and the spirit of the catastrophe inspired the side. “It is an emotional place for us to play,” said Chipolopolo captain and Player of the Tournament Christopher Katongo. “The whole of Zambia wants us to make the heroes of 1993 proud, and we want to play well to honour them.”
The side showed great strength throughout the event, with their brave attitude encapsulated by confident goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene. “I don’t get to shaking just because I am facing Drogba,” he said before the final. “There is no panic for us in this team.” And so it was that they stood up to Ghana in the last four, with Mweene saving an early penalty kick from Asamoah Gyan, and overcame the seeming inevitability of the Elephants in the tense final when they had so many chances to lose their nerve.
Côte d’Ivoire were clinical over the three weeks until getting bogged down in the final by the inspired Zambians. “We have learned the need to be very solid and robust. This time we have a very good defence and that is our strength,” said coach Francois Zahoui. This kind of focus was evident, and their second Cup of Nations crown - 20 years after their last - was in reach after they completed six matches without conceding a goal. But they were exposed by the pressure of the shoot-out, and although Drogba continues to be a vital and inspirational figure on and off the pitch, his penalty miss in regular time of the final will no doubt cloud memories of his performance.
Ghana, who Renard called “Africa’s most consistent team” were left downhearted once again after the defeat to Zambia and a blow against Mali in the third-place match. The relative misery of the Black Stars, who have not conquered the continent in 30 years and were considered co-favourites with Côte d’Ivoire ahead of the finals, was further compounded by Gyan’s failure from the spot in the fateful last four match, which conjured up memories of his missed penalty in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
The successes were many, but one failure shocked above all others. Senegal's highly touted Teranga Lions crashed to three 2-1 defeats and ended up without a point, which cost coach Amara Traore his job. "Success will come for us, of that I have no doubt,” said striker Demba Ba defiantly afterwards. Mali were happy to step in to Senegal’s shoes, finishing third - their best result in four decades. Led by Barcelona’s Seydou Keita and veteran coach Alain Giresse, the Eagles climbed out of a tough group and past co-hosts Gabon in a dramatic penalty shoot-out in the quarter-finals before running out of steam against Côte d’Ivoire in the last four.
The co-hosts also inspired as both teams reached the last eight while playing some quality football. Gabon, who beat veteran sides Morocco and Tunisia in the group stage, in particular showed off a rising generation of exciting players. Equatorial Guinea were the lowest-ranked team before the finals, but they did not show it in stunning Senegal - Kily's long-range winner in injury time one of the goals of the tournament - and only falling to Zambia by a goal. And Sudan confirmed that they have been making strong progress under coach Mohamed ‘Mazda’ Abdullah. “Our campaign was a success, and we achieved most of our objectives,” said the Desert Hawks coach after a lopsided loss to Zambia in the last eight. “Since 1976, we had not won a point or scored a goal, but we made history here by reaching the quarter-final.”
Kolo and Yaya Toure inspired the Elephants along with Gervinho, who scored an excellent match-winning goal against Mali. Leaving aside his unfortunate final, Drogba showed his best, scoring twice, after having a penalty saved against Equatorial Guinea in the quarter-finals. Keita for Mali played consistently like a much younger man, while Dede Ayew did the opposite in a positive way for Ghana.
Youngster Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a lot to do with Gabon's run, but he also missed the only spot-kick in the shoot-out with Mali. For Zambia, captain Chris Katongo and Rainford Kalaba were central to a brisk Zambian attack, while Mweene led a defence that did not give up a goal in the knockout rounds. From north Africa, Moroccan Younes Belhanda was a brilliant midfield conductor in a disappointing side, and Youssef Msakni, who at least advanced to the quarter-finals with Tunisia, is a tricky footballer and a star of the future.
Did you know?
The 2012 version was the seventh CAN final to go to penalties. Côte d’Ivoire also lost the last one that did so, in 2006 to Egypt. In this case, TP Mazembe centre-back Stoppila Sunzu converted the winning kick. It was the third final for both Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire, and the pair both have now won once each.
7 – the number of players that finished together atop the scoring table with three goals. Cheick Diabate of Mali scored all of his in the knockout rounds, while Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Angola’s Manucho and Morocco’s Houssine Kharja nabbed theirs in the group stage. Drogba as well as Chris Katongo and Emmanuel Mayuka of Zambia could have finished top alone but failed to find the net in the final.
What they said
“It was a sign of destiny, written in the sky. There was a special spirit with us,” Herve Renard, Zambia coach.