Isaac Chansa, the mild-mannered Zambian attacking midfielder, has his sights set on the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations as his side face yet another tricky trip north to play Libya in the qualifiers this weekend.
On paper, the Zambians start as favourites, but Libya - who will host the 2013 Cup of Nations - should not be underestimated. They are clearly determined to reach the continental showpiece in 2012 to prepare themselves for the following edition, when they will carry larger expectations. Nonetheless, Chansa is eyeing the challenge with optimism.
“All the qualifiers are tough, but we believe that we can pull it off,” Chansa recently told FIFA.com. “Our focus is now on 2012. We have to qualify for the tournament and then do well at the event. I think the team showed its capabilities in Angola (at the Cup of Nations earlier this year, where they lost on penalties to Nigeria in the last eight), but we know there is room for improvement from that performance. Libya will be tough, but it’s important that we get a positive result there. We need to win all our home games and then make sure we get a draw in the worst scenario away from home."
After the Cup of Nations, Zambia were heralded as one of the tournament's success stories by virtue of a gutsy performance that saw them top their opening group before a creditable showing against the Super Eagles. Certainly, the Chipolopolo are slowly pushing themselves to the front of the line of emerging African football nations, and the level of expectation is such that they are cosidered dark horses to bring southern Africa its first continental championship for over 15 years. In fact, before Bafana Bafana were readmitted into world football and won the 1996 Cup of Nations, Zambia were seen as the dominant force in the region, having reached the final twice in 1974 and 1994.
Key to this ascendancy has been an emergence of some eye-catching talent. Players like Christopher Katongo and his brother, Felix, and Jacob Mulenga have rightly received much of the credit, but Chansa has often been the unsung hero in this current generation.
The midfielder launched his career with Power Dynamos in Zambia before making the trip to the tip of the African continent to team up with Orlando Pirates in South Africa in 2004. He left Pirates after a few seasons for Swedish side Helsingborgs, but last year he rejoined Orlando Pirates and, while he may not be his national team's most high-profile player, he is simply happy to be part of a successful side.
“We have a good squad now," he said. "We have some quality players in the likes of Chris [Katongo], James [Chamanga] and others. I guess for me, I just have to work harder all the time. I’m not a star, I don’t think like a star, I just work and play for the team. My aim is to help Zambia whenever I’m given an opportunity and that’s what I intend doing."
Although there is no disputing that Zambia are on the rise, the departure of influential coach Herve Renard, who has since assumed coaching reigns of Angola, might have been expected to halt their rise. However, Renard has since been replaced by Italian Dario Bonetti, which was a positive choice according to Chansa.
“[Renard] did a good job for Zambia, but Bonetti is also a good coach,” he said. “We should give him a chance to settle down, get to know all the players. He is now our man, we have to support him, that’s important.”