As fans from Zambia have come to celebrate, they now boast a team more than capable of making history. The Chipolopolo, under French coach Herve Renard, went all the way to clinch their maiden continental title, the 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations. Boosted by that achievement, the team from southern Africa have excelled in qualifying for Brazil 2014, leading the likes of Ghana and Sudan to top their section.
Renard’s squad now have a great opportunity to book Zambia’s maiden appearance at a FIFA World Cup™, with forward James Chamanga admitting that last year’s victory has given them a real sense of belief.
"For us, it is a great pride to play for the national team," the 33-year-old told FIFA.com. "When we lifted the African trophy for the first time last year, we felt a sense of relief. We showed the world we can make it. Our next target, of course, is to reach our first World Cup finals."
Twenty years ago today, Zambia lost nearly their entire national team in a tragic air disaster offshore from Libreville, Gabon. Eighteen players died, as did coach Godfrey Chitalu, decimating one of the country’s most promising footballing generations.
"That was the saddest moment in our football history," continued Chamanga. "That was why we went into the African Cup in Gabon with a strong determination. We didn't care about where we came from, but we joined the team with common cause and we respected each other. We wanted to revive our fortunes and show the world what we are capable of."
It was perhaps the best we could do to pay tribute and show respect to those who lost their lives during that tragedy.
They did just that. Zambia, rank outsiders going into the tournament, defeated Sudan and Ghana, their opponents in 2014 qualifying, en route to a final against Côte d'Ivoire, which they won 8-7 on penalties just a few hundred metres inland from where the crash happened.
"It was such an important success for the team and the country, to win the Cup at such a special place,” continued Chamanga. “It was perhaps the best we could do to pay tribute and show respect to those who lost their lives during that tragedy.”
Next up for Zambia are three crucial FIFA World Cup qualifiers. They entertain Lesotho and Sudan on 8 and 15 June respectively, before travelling to Ghana in September. With the Chipolopolo currently leading Ghana by a single point, the game in Accra could effectively be a decider as to who wins Group D and advances to the play-offs.
"Obviously the first two home games are important for us,” said Chamanga. “If we can defeat both opponents, we will travel to Ghana possibly needing just a point to go through. But we can’t get carried away; we need to focus on each game as it comes. We can’t take anything for granted.
"However, after playing together for many years, we are familiar with each other’s games. We know our next moves and what to do."
The current Zambia squad features three stars either currently or recently based in China. Aside from Chamanga, bossing the midfield is Isaac Chansa, who left Henan Jianye earlier this year, while captaining Zambia is none other than club team-mate Christopher Katongo, who earned the MVP award at last year's continental finals.
"The Chinese league is improving fast," said Chamanga, who made his name in South Africa, where he scored 14 goals during the 2008 season with Moroka Swallows to become the league’s top scorer.
"Since moving to China, I have worked hard and continued to make progress. Last season I scored ten goals with Dalian Shide, and I am aiming to beat that tally with my new club Liaoning Whowin."