Zambia have now achieved their pre-tournament ambition at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations by progressing to Wednesday’s semi-final stage, but coach Herve Renard is setting a new target for a side he says is vastly underrated.
A resounding 3-0 win over Sudan in Saturday’s quarter-final in Bata saw the southern African nation into the final four, reviving their reputation among the continent’s elite. Zambia also beat Senegal and surprising co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in Group A, with their only slip so far in the event a 2-2 draw with Libya. For coach Renard, a first semi-final since 1996 is no surprise, given the experience of his side, who he says has been largely overlooked before and during the tournament.
“I try to go to the web every day to see what is written about us, but all I see is stuff about [former France star and current Mali coach] Alain Giresse,” he quipped after goals from Stopilla Sunzu, captain Chris Katongo and James Chamanga secured their semi-final berth over the dogged Sudanese. “It’s because they don’t know our team in this tournament. Zambia did not rate in any of the predictions. We are under the radar.”
But the 43-year-old France-born former defender insists the Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets) have the pedigree to put them in the mix for the 12 February final in Libreville, even with favoured Ghana waiting this week. “Remember, we have been to the finals every time since 2004. There are many players here who are in their fourth successive tournament and have picked up a lot of experience along the way,” he said with a nod to his previous stint with Zambia in the last continental finals. “We were unlucky to lose in the quarter-final in 2010, so to get to the semi-finals now is fantastic for us.”
Zambia have one of the best histories at the tournament for any nation never to have won the event. They have qualified for 11 of the last 12 editions, reached the final match twice (in 1974 and 1994) and finished third a further three times. Such consistency puts them in the upper echelon of African teams already, but the Bullets might be hitting a high point, even without any of the international icons of the other semi-finalists. “The side have been together for a long time but without any big stars like many of the other teams. The star is the team. It’s a very big advantage because we are not scared about any other teams,” he said.
Renard is now shifting the goalposts for his 23-man squad, saying he feels they could go all the way to the final. “It was always our ambition before the start of the tournament to get to the semi-finals of this competition. It was a high target for Zambia because the country has not had a team reach that stage since 1996, so 16 years later. We are back in the semi-finals because we learnt a lot of things at the last tournament in 2010,” he said about his side, which went out to Nigeria in a last-eight penalty-kick shoot-out. “I think the lessons learnt along the way have helped us a lot in our approach here.”
Although Zambia looked to cruise to a routine triumph on Saturday, Renard says it was a lot harder than the 3-0 scoreline suggested. “It was a game like we expected - that means a difficult game. We know this team because we are playing often in the CECAFA tournaments in the east African region,” he said about Sudan. “They don’t show a lot of pace during the games, but they are very skilful. Sometimes they can put you to sleep. When we started the second half we were sleeping a bit and then after Rainford Kalaba did some magic with his skill, he got us a penalty. We were lucky to score the second goal, and with Sudan down to ten men and us 2-0 up, it was easier thereafter.”
Renard was sharing the spotlight as well, paying tribute to his backroom staff by taking them to the post-match press conference to introduce them to the media. “I want to acknowledge and congratulate my staff. I could not have done it without them. There is no way that I work alone and there is no coach these days who can work alone. We have to be proud of our achievement and now we have to go to Gabon on 12 February.” They will try to reach this new goal against the Black Stars on 8 February in Bata before Mali attempt to topple giants Côte d'Ivoire in Libreville's semi-final.