Zambia are one of just two countries in the southern African region still left with a chance of qualifying for the first-ever FIFA World Cup™ finals in their own backyard.
Having come close before, Zambia hold high hopes of going one better in the coming months and booking their place among the elite of world football at the 32-team tournament in South Africa.
But Zambia must finish top of the standings in their final round qualifying group that includes reigning African champions Egypt and two-time FIFA World Cup qualifiers Algeria.
Zambia’s captain Chris Katongo will be the key player in their side and is the only footballer from the country to enjoy a club career in a high profile league.
The former army sergeant, who received a honorary promotion after he scored a hat trick against South Africa in a vital CAF African Nations Cup qualifier in 2007, is now on the books of Arminia Bielefeld in Germany.
The 28-year-old striker, known for his dramatic somersaults after scoring, talks with FIFA.com about his country’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers, which begin away from home against Egypt in Cairo at the end of March.
FIFA.com: What was your reaction to drawing the likes of Egypt and Algeria in your FIFA World Cup qualifying group?
Chris Katongo: I always think that any team drawn into a group at this stage of the competition has a chance. I don’t think there is such a thing as big teams or small teams. I think it’s a fair draw for us and this is a real opportunity for Zambia to reach the World Cup finals.
So you think there is a real chance for Zambia to qualify, even if you have the African champions Egypt in the same group?
It’s not like that; every game is a difficult game. But we have got this far so we’ve got a chance. Egypt have a chance too, Rwanda as well. This is our time to try and qualify. I know it’s a difficult task, but we have a chance. There are so many good teams who did not make it this far, so you have to believe that there is now the opportunity for us.
How do you rate the strength of the current Zambian team?
I think we have done well.
We’ve been a pretty consistent line-up. It was disappointing that we did not get past the first round of the African Cup of Nations last year in Ghana and that shows that time we need to put in a lot more effort. We need a real 120 per cent effort to be sure of having a good chance of going to the World Cup.
It is less than 500 days now to the FIFA World Cup finals. Does it dominate your thoughts?
It’s always in my brain! Every time when someone talks about my national team, I’m always thinking of playing at the World Cup. If I could put on my captain’s armband at the World Cup finals, that would be the highlight of my career. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, so we’ll be trying by all means to qualify. Our time has come.
How much has the experience of playing club football in Europe now improved your own game?
I’m just the same player I always was! Nothing has changed. Football has experienced players who can do nothing and those without experience who can make a massive impact. But I’m learning new things every day and picking up more knowledge. But I’m the same player. At 28, I feel I’m approaching my peak.
Have you enjoyed playing in the Bundesliga?
It is a tough league … I’ve enjoyed it despite the fact our team is not doing too well. It’s not a big club but I’ve enjoyed it to be here. Its important for my career to play in a league like the Bundesliga
You are the only Zambian footballer competing in such a high profile league. Do you see yourself as role model?
That’s not for me to decide but for others to see me as a role model. But when I stop playing football I do hope I’ll be remembered in Zambia as one of the players who competed in a big league and did well. But as of now, I’m still improving but I hope that when I stop people in Zambia will think I played a positive role.
You played away against Egypt in the opening game of your final phase of the African preliminaries. What sort of approach can we expect from Zambia?
We need to play our normal game and that is attacking football. We need to score. The best defence for us is attack. We can’t afford to sit back and defend, so I think we’ll go onto attack. If we win, that will be a brilliant start for us but a draw will also be OK. Obviously a defeat is not on our agenda.