Fresh from his switch from France's Ligue 2 to the Dutch Eredivisie, FIFA.com spoke to Zambia key man Jacob Mulenga ahead of his side's crucial 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying clash in Algeria.
"It's a final that we cannot afford to lose," said the new Utrecht front-man on the Chipolopolos' trip to Blida on 6 September to take on the African Zone Group C leaders. "If they win they'll be virtually qualified, so it's going to be very tough over there. For us, this might be our last chance, especially as we face Egypt straight after," added the forward, whose team are currently in third place in the section, level on four points with the Egyptians, with only the top sides in each of the five groups earning a spot at South Africa 2010.
Fifteen years on from a tragic plane crash which decimated the Zambian national squad - their aircraft went down on 27 April 1993 on the way to a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Senegal - the two-time CAF African Cup of Nations' runners-up (1974 and 1994) are still reeling from that terrible blow. The man currently charged with continuing that recovery by clinching a FIFA World Cup berth is Frenchman Herve Renard, formerly assistant to Claude Le Roy during his time with Ghana, who has been in the role since May 2008.
Having got off to a positive start in Group C with a 1-1 draw in Egypt and 1-0 home win over Rwanda, a 2-0 home defeat by Algeria in June this year has severely dented the Zambians' chances. "I regret so many things about that match," said Mulenga, who played for Kitwe outfit Afrisports FC in his homeland, picking up 20 national-team youth caps before heading to France at 20 years of age to join Chateauroux. "If we don't qualify, I think that game will be the main reason. I still believe that nothing's decided yet but it's a shame we didn't win that match."
We're too inconsistent but consistency comes with time and a certain
maturity, which we've not had till now. But there's no doubt that the
talent is there and that gives me confidence.
"The coach is trying to do his job as best he can. He had to start from scratch and that takes time. We're still in a rebuilding phase and the team's young and lacking experience," continued Mulenga on Zambia's current situation. "We don't have big-name players turning out for Europe's best clubs, which costs us dear in big games. We're too inconsistent but consistency comes with time and a certain maturity, which we've not had till now. But there's no doubt that the talent is there and that gives me confidence."
It is of course true that Zambia do not have players with the same star billing as the likes of Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Morocco and Nigeria. Knocked out of last year's African Cup of Nations in the first round, not one of the Chipolopolos is involved in regular UEFA Champions League action or plies their trade for a European giant. However, there is always hope for a squad including Mulenga, Chris and Felix Katongo, Joseph Musonda and Rainford Kalaba.
"Not having any of the boys at the very highest level does hurt the team. That's something we lack, while the fact our infrastructure is lagging behind also hinders Zambian football. To make up for that, we've made our togetherness our main weapon. We play as a team and for each other," added the scorer of the 2008 Ligue 2 goal of the year, when he flicked the ball up inside the box and kept it up with his head before sending a bicycle kick into the top corner against Clermont-Ferrand.
And despite only having moved to the Netherlands this summer, Mulenga is already eyeing a future transfer to a European heavyweight. "I'd say that even though I'm 25 years old my career's only just beginning. My next step is a big club, God willing and if I continue to work hard," said the ambitious goal-getter.
"I've learned so much tactically and physically. French football has been a fantastic stepping stone for me." Even so, what better launch pad than firing Zambia to a place at South Africa 2010, starting with all three points against Algeria?