Zambia coach Herve Renard is resigned to travelling without star striker Jacob Mulenga to the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, but the French tactician can nonetheless draw on the firm legacy left by his predecessor Dario Bonetti as he begins his second spell at the Chipolopolo helm.
Bonetti’s native Italy and Renard’s France are famously separated by the Alps, and Zambia’s players have practically had to cross a mountain range of their own in recent months. Required to scale new peaks to adapt to Bonetti’s forensic tactical approach, they now find themselves on more familiar ground after the Italian was relieved of his duties in October, despite sealing an Africa Cup of Nations place.
The desire to take a fresh direction opened the door to Renard, who steered the Chipolopolo to the 2010 quarter-finals, and Zambia hope to show the progress they have made at the upcoming continental showcase.
“Our African Cup of Nations performance will undoubtedly be a good indicator of our potential in the World Cup qualifiers,” explained the President of the Zambian Football Association and legendary former international, Kalusha Bwalya. “Because of that, it’s important for us to give a good account of ourselves in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.”
They will be especially keen to show improvement against Group A rivals Libya, who took four points off Zambia in qualifying. That record ultimately cost Bonetti his job, but his strategic impact on the team could still prove valuable at the finals.
A culture of discipline
"Bonetti brought in a much more tactical approach,” said Mulenga, Zambia’s key man in attacking areas. “His style of football required us to be very rigorous in our positioning and we profited from that. It’s rare to see an Italian coach an African team, but we showed that we could play with discipline. In a competition like the African Cup of Nations, where big games come thick and fast, that’s going to help us.”
Unfortunately for his coach and team-mates, the Utrecht striker will not be taking part in the festivities himself. Sidelined due to injury, Mulenga’s absence represents a major blow, particularly as he had been enjoying his best ever season in the Eredivisie. However, he is convinced his colleagues will cope.
“The squad has plenty of depth,” he said. “Everyone in this team brings something, no matter how much experience they have. We listen to each other and I know that other players will step up.” Above all, Renard will be looking to Given Singuluma and brothers Chris and Felix Katongo to fill the gap.
Road to Brazil
"Senegal will be our main rivals,” added Mulenga, who has fired seven goals in 11 outings for his club this term. “On paper, I think they’re even one of the favourites for the title.” The 27-year-old believes his own side can go far too, given that some of the continent’s most prestigious names – including Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria – will be missing.
“To be honest, the biggest issue that got resolved during qualifying was Egypt not going through. Without them, it will be easier for everyone. The other teams may boast some big-name players, but they’re not among the best on the continent right now.”
Having reached the last eight in Angola two years ago, not least due to Mulenga’s efforts up front, the Chipolopolo have their sights set on the semi-finals. That would prove the perfect tonic before their 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign gets underway in June, and the entire nation is optimistic Zambia can have their say on the road to Brazil.
“We got a tough draw, but it could have been worse,” explained Bwalya. “I think we have what it takes to reach the next qualifying round, even if we’ll have to be wary of Ghana, who, for me, are the best African team around at the moment.”
Zambia have flirted with booking themselves a berth at world football’s leading tournament ever since tragedy struck in the form of an air disaster during USA 1994 qualifying. They have fallen short on each occasion, but hopes are high that the current generation can make the crucial final step.
“We’ll use our education in another style of football to be more solid,” said Mulenga, who has served in every qualifying campaign since 2004. “This squad is united, close and ambitious. And I’ll be ready for June.” So too will his team-mates, having potentially reached fresh heights on the African stage.