Platform for Unsung Heroes – African Nations Championship

The most unsung continental tournament starts off the World Cup year. Debopam Roy takes a look

We are just a week into the new year and already the start of the first big football tournament is upon us. In a year which will feature Commonwealth Games, Asian Games among big global tournaments and the mother of them all – the World Cup, the first big tournament that ushers the year is hardly one to set pulses racing for the average viewer. It is the African Nations Championship or CHAN (not to be confused with the African Nations Cup which takes place a year before), which is starting on 11th January at Cape Town, South Africa with a match between South Africa and Mozambique.

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CAF

It is vital to distinguish between the two continental African championships here. The African Nations Cup (AFCON) is the privileged continental tournament. It started in 1957 and has been held every two years since 1968, the last of which was held in 2013 in South Africa which Nigeria won beating Burkina Faso by a single goal.

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The African Nations Championship was announced by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in September 2007 in a bid to popularise the game in a continent which was finally getting to organize its own World Cup. It was felt that, with the first African World Cup merely three years away, there was a need to promote the talent that was playing in the continent. In a concerted move to promote the national leagues of the continent, only players playing in their home country’s domestic league were deemed eligible for this tournament. So all the stars who were away in Europe or even in other African leagues could not be selected for this tournament. It was a novel move to ensure that the talented footballers who toil in the domestic leagues of the continent get their due, as these home-based players were cast aside in favour of the big names who were playing in foreign leagues when the AFCON or World Cup or any other tournament was played.

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In 2007, while introducing the African Nations Championship, CAF president Issa Hayatou said: “We strive to give to the local African players the possibility to showcase their talents and abilities, but also to bring to a higher level the national championships in Africa, and to boost their importance”. The inaugural edition, held in Ivory Coast in 2009, was a success where eight teams qualified and in the final DR Congo comfortably won 2-0 against Ghana to record their first triumph in a continental competition since the 1974 African Nations Cup. The tournament sparked major interest and CAF decided to make the stage bigger by increasing the number of teams in the tournament to 16 from the next edition. “A lot of federations were hesitant when the tournament was planned (in 2007) but they have changed their minds and now want to play in it. The standard of play since this edition started last week has positively surprised many people about the standard of the leagues in Africa”, CAF director of communications Suleiman Habuba said just few days after the start of first edition.

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The second edition was held in February 2011 in Sudan. It was an emotional moment for the host nation as the independence referendum having been passed just a month back, made the separation of South Sudan inevitable. Buoyed by a patriotic fervour, Sudan reached the semi-finals but were ousted in a penalty shootout to Angola. They subsequently defeated Algeria to claim the third spot. In the final, Tunisia denied Angola their maiden tournament win by beating them 3-0.
The upcoming tournament will be the third edition of the ANC and originally it was slated to be hosted by another of the lesser lights of African football – Libya. Libya gave up the right to host the event because of the continuing upheaval in the country and South Africa was chosen instead. Libya will instead organise the 2017 tournament, which had been due to take place in South Africa.

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41 teams had taken part in the continental qualification process which finally culminated in 16 teams that have been divided into four groups.

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 Groups

Group A: South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Mali.
Group B: Zimbabwe, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Morocco.
Group C: Ghana, Libya, Ethiopia, Congo.
Group D: DR Congo, Gabon, Burundi, Mauritania.

Super Eagles
Super Eagles

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Reigning AFCON champions Nigeria are probably the hands-on favourites to win the tournament. But there was a moment when it seemed that the Super Eagles were set to give the competition a miss. In early 2013, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) withdrew its team from the 2014 African Nations Championship qualifiers due to financial constraints. A month later, NFF changed its tune completely and agreed to participate in the qualifiers. They defeated Ivory Coast in a two-legged playoff to reach the main draw. Having won the AFCON only a year earlier in the same country, Nigeria would like to pull off a unique double of winning both the continental tournaments back-to-back.

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There are quite a few players who would like to show their skills in this tournament and coming in the month of January, has an added bonus of getting into the eye of an enthusiastic scout from any of the European leagues who are looking for cheap winter reinforcements. The likes of Itumeleng Khune, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Bernard Parker from South Africa, Ifeanyi Edeh and Rabiu Ali of Nigeria, Kennedy Boateng and Jordan Opoku of Ghana, Mouhsine Moutouali and MouhssineLajour of Morocco, Cheick Doumbia of Mali have all shone in continental African club and country championships before. With a bit of luck, a spectacular performance could well pave the way for a contract to Europe or even more – a chance in the squad for the world cup.

 

Itumeleng Khune (l) and Siphiwe Tshabalala (r)
Itumeleng Khune (l) and Siphiwe Tshabalala (r)

 

The African Nations Championship is low-key and without much kerfuffle but it showcases the hidden talents of Africa. It might be a tournament without much fanfare but provides the platform for the stars of tomorrow to come forth. The restriction of fielding players playing in local leagues is unique and success of this tournament will help the African countries to build up a bench strength which may yet lead them to a maiden world cup win in near future. So to gauge the pulse of African future, keep an eye on the African Nations Championship.

Dreams Still Come True

The African Cup of Nations was a true fairytale. Debopam Roy followed it along with Ricardo Makivic to bring out the details. Catch them on Twitter on @rossoneri and @makivic08

Fairy tales are not always found in books. Sometimes they unfold before our own eyes.

Such were the happenings at the 28th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, (officially Orange CAN; with the sponsor being Orange and CAN being French for Coupe d’Afrique des Nations). Zambia won their first ever maiden international trophy beating the Ivory Coast in a sudden death shootout. The Elephants lost yet another opportunity to seal the moniker of ‘golden generation’, much like the Portuguese generation of Luis Figo and Rui Costa had failed to do so. But the Chipolopolo, who had once lost 18 of its own golden generation in 1994, in a tragic airline crash, scripted their own epic fairytale, only a few hundred metres from the crash site in Libreville, Gabon. It was no wonder that the victory was dedicated to those fallen heroes of Zambian football.

This edition of CAN was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, the first time that either of them had hosted this tournament. But even without any prior experience, they made a good fist of it.  Gabon alone spent about €600 mn according to their president and Equatorial Guinea did likewise. As a comparison, last host Angola had spent €700-800 mn in 2010. This edition of CAN though was better organized and didn’t have the repetition of the tragic attack on Togo footballers in 2010.

An Uncertain Qualification

The 2012 CAN qualifiers would be more remembered for those nations that failed to qualify as much as those that did. With joint hosts, there were only 14 spots left to occupy. Hence 44 nations were drawn into eleven groups, each containing 4 teams. Togo, who were banned by African Federation after the 2010 shooting incident, when they had refused to participate further in the tournament, were reinstated and was later added to Group K. The top team in each group qualified, as did the runner-up of Group K (which contained 5 teams) and the two best runners-up from the other groups. Teams that missed out on qualification included four-time winner Cameroon, two-time winners Nigeria and Congo Democratic Republic, and one-time winners Algeria, Congo and Ethiopia.

But the most epic ‘cock-up’ happened in Group G consisting of Niger, South Africa, Sierra Leone and three-time running champions Egypt. The first mishap was when Egypt managed only a single win in the group to finish with five points and was out of reckoning. However going into the final round of matches, all 3 other teams could qualify with Niger on nine points; away to winless Egypt and South Africa were at home to Sierra Leone with both on eight points. At half-time, Egypt were leading Niger by a goal. The South African management then started playing for a draw as they saw that they would have a better goal differential than Niger and finished the match 0-0 (they ultimately had a +2 goal differential to Niger’s -2). However, reminiscent of South African miscalculations in cricket World Cup of 2003 (when they misread the par score for win in rain-affected matches), the football team completely forgot that a draw would lead to a three-way tie with Niger and Sierra Leone. This would then mean, head-to-head between the three teams and only if no team could be identified here, would the goal differentials be taken into account. So the Bafana Bafana, who in their misguided state even went on a lap of honour after the final whistle, dancing in formation in front of cheering fans, were shocked when it was announced that Niger has qualified. Niger, who had a point more than South Africa and Sierra Leone in their tripartite head-to-head, thus qualified for the first time in the tournament proper.

There were also emotional qualifiers in Sudan who were the only East African nation to qualify. The team had seen the division of the country, with the creation of South Sudan, midway through the qualifying campaign and this was the final tournament where a unified Sudan team participated. There were also first-time qualifiers in Botswana and Libya who had only ever played the CAN when they had hosted it. Coming as it was, in the midst of the political turmoil in their country, the Libyan footballers did well to be one of the two lucky runners-up who qualified. Tournament hosts Equatorial Guinea, who were the lowest ranked team of the tournament (151 in FIFA rankings), were also making their debut.

Newcomers Make a Grand Start

With so many new teams coming in and most of the traditional heavyweights not present, the pre-tournament favourites were four-time winner The Black Stars of Ghana, and three teams which had the stars but not the recent success – The Lions of Teranga from Senegal, The Elephants of Ivory Coast and The Eagles of Mali.  The hosts were supposed to provide some flourish but no one really expected much of them. 2004 champions Tunisia, fellow 2006 World Cup country Angola and the first African team to reach the second round in World Cup – Morocco, were supposed to be the other main contenders.

Venues for 2012 CAN

Libreville and Franceville were the venues in Gabon while Bata and Malabo were the venues in Equatorial Guinea. Malabo thus became the first island to host a CAN match. The official song was composed by musicians of five countries – Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast. The hosts added their own colour to the tournament. The opening ceremony was a grand affair being held at the Estadio de Bata in Equatorial Guinea. In the opening match, the hosts Equatorial Guinea played against Libya. Teodorin Obiang, the playboy son of Equatorial Guinea’s president had promised the national team $1 mn for a win against Libya and a further $20,000 for every goal scored by the Nzalang Nacional (National Lightening), as the national team is fondly called. To this, Libya’s Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta had sneered, “They use money, I use mentality”. In the end, the Nzalang Nacional pocketed that prize by winning 1-0 and Spanish born former Real Madrid midfielder, Javier Balboa pocketed the prize money as the goal scorer.

Groups Throw Up Surprise

Group A consisted of Zambia, hosts Equatorial Guinea, Libya and favourites Senegal. In probably keeping with the fairytale nature of the qualification, the favourites failed to win a single match. An attack line of Lille’s Moussa Sow (who later transferred to Fenerbahce), Copenhagen’s Dame N’Doye, Newcastle’s strike duo Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba and captain and former Marseille player, Mamadou Niang managed only one goal in each match; conceding two in every one of them.  Such a humiliating exit meant an immediate release of manager Amara Traore. Zambia stayed unbeaten with two wins and a draw against Libya to top the group while Equatorial Guinea beat both Libya and Senegal to proceed as runners.

Group B saw The Elephants of Ivory Coast ride roughshod over Sudan, Angola and Burkina Faso. Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Eboue, Salomon Kalou and Bakary Kone were all on the mark as The Elephants won all their matches without conceding a goal. Sudan and Angola both had a chance to qualify after drawing their match 2-2 in which Ahmed Bashir scored Sudan’s first goal in CAN in 36 years. Earlier Angola had beaten Burkina Faso 2-1 while Sudan lost 1-0 to the Ivorians. In the final set of group matches played simultaneously, Sudan needed a win and an Angola loss as well as the goal differential to work in their favour. At half-time, with Sudan leading by a goal against Burkina Faso and Angola trailing by a goal to Ivory Coast, qualification was still in Angola’s hand. However, Wilfried Bony of Ivory Coast scored a second goal against Angola while Mudather Careca scored his and Sudan’s second goal to give decisive advantage to Sudan. Ultimately a late goal from Burkina Faso didn’t matter. Sudan won 2-1 and qualified as runner-up on fewer goals conceded over Angola who had lost 2-0.

Group C had the other co-host Gabon, Tunisia, Morocco and Niger. After their epic qualification, Niger clearly felt the heat among the big boys and lost all their matches scoring only one goal. Hosts Gabon were fired by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was having a breakout tournament. The 22-year old Aubameyang, once of AC Milan youth system but who had moved to St. Etienne in French Ligue 1 in January, scored three goals and provided 2 assists (3 in the tournament) in the group stages. Based on his goals and assists, Gabon beat Niger 2-0, Tunisia 1-0 but played the match of the tournament against Morocco. In a pulsating match played in capital Libreville, Morocco took the lead from a fine individual goal by Fiorentina midfielder Houssain Kharja in the 24th minute. Try as they might, Gabon couldn’t unlock the Moroccan goal till the 76th minute. And then the floodgates opened. First Aubameyang scored from a long throw-in nodded on by Glasgow Rangers’ striker Daniel Cousin in the 77th minute. A minute later, Aubameyang returned the favour to Daniel Cousin, who showed trickery in the box and fired in a low shot that trickled in off the post to make it 2-1 to Gabon. Gabon could have made the game safe when Eric Mouloungui had the goal at his mercy but he blasted the ball over the bar. It seemed a fatal mistake as Morocco was awarded a penalty in the first minute of added on time for a handling offence and Kharja scored from the spot. But a reckless challenge from Udinese’s Medhi Benatia in the seventh minute of injury time gave Gabon a free kick outside the box. Bruno Mbanangoye Zita scored from it, the last shot of the match, to seal a 3-2 win and a quarterfinal berth for the co-hosts with a match left to play. Morocco, who had earlier lost to Tunisia 1-2, was thus eliminated after two matches. Tunisia took the runner-up spot.

The Black Stars of Ghana were firm favourites in Group D, despite the absence of Milan midfielder, Kevin-Prince Boateng who had retired from international matches. They stayed unbeaten, beating Botswana 1-0 and Mali 2-0 and drawing with Guinea 1-1 to top the group. Like fellow newcomers Niger, Botswana too lost all their matches. Mali beat Guinea 1-0 in the pivotal match to secure second position.

Tragedy Strikes before Quarterfinals

In the time before the group stages ended and the quarterfinals began, football in Africa had been dealt a huge blow. 74 fans were killed and hundreds injured in Port Said in Egypt, following club side Al-Masry’s unexpected win over Al-Ahly, Egypt’s most famous and successful club. After the final whistle, surprisingly, the winning Al-Masry fans invaded the pitch, seeking to attack Al-Ahly players; after that, they charged into the Al-Ahly fans. Dozens of people were crushed to death, suffocated or fatally stabbed. The riots later spread into the cities and left even more dead and injured. Various conspiracy theories abounded but it was a football tragedy of great proportions.

Fans of Al-Masry Invaded the pitch in Egypt to attack players and fans of Al-Ahly(L). An Al-Ahly player with a bloodied face(R)

Continuing with the tournament, amidst this tragedy, was a decision that the organizers took and all quarterfinalists paid their respects to the departed before each match. Security was further beefed up.

The quarterfinals were held on 4th and 5th February and the two days witnessed contrasting set of matches. On 4th February, Zambia met lucky qualifier Sudan and hammered them 3-0 to reach their first CAN semifinals in 16 years. The score was matched by Ivory Coast who notched an identical 3-0 margin against plucky co-hosts Equatorial Guinea.

The next day featured quarterfinal matches between co-hosts Gabon and Mali and between Ghana and Tunisia. In the first match, Gabon took a lead when talisman Aubameyang was unable to keep up his run of a goal per match but provided the assist via a pull back for Eric Mouloungui to score from close range in the 55th minute. And they were five minutes from their first ever CAN semifinals but Mali snatched an equaliser in the 85th minute through the substitute Cheick Tidiane Diabaté to force extra time. The extra time didn’t produce a result and the first tie-breaker of the tournament ensued. In a Greek tragedy, Aubameyang, who had earlier struck the upright in the 29th minute after beating the offside trap, was the only man to miss his kick as Seydou Keita converted the final penalty kick for Mali to seal a 5-4 victory in tie-breaker.

 The last quarterfinal featured Ghana against Tunisia. Ghana took the lead after just nine minutes with Captain John Mensah heading home a corner. But Tunisia equalized through a Sabeur Khalifa header from a cross just before half-time. The match remained cagy and went to extra time. Tunisia had the ball in the net almost immediately in extra-time through Issam Jemaa, but he was adjudged just offside. And then in a catastrophic mistake, the Tunisian goalkeeper Aymen Mahtlouthi, who had been excellent all night, dropped the ball horribly from a harmless cross to the far post from Emmanuel Agyemang Badu, right in front of Andre Ayew, who tapped in gratefully. The North Africans tried in vain to equalize and a harsh red card to defender Aymen Abdennou left them with 10 men. Ghana closed out the match 2-1 to proceed to their fourth CAN semi-final in a row.

Tactical Semi-finals

The semi-finals and finals of major tournaments are mostly tactical and cagy affairs. Till the quarter-finals, teams are willing to play adventurous football, however, as the business end of the tournament nears, the reality dawns on them that one single match will give them a shot at immortality and hence semifinals across most big tournaments happen to be less spectacular. Both the semifinals were witness to this phenomenon.

To the neutrals, when one sees a semi-final line-up of Ivory Coast against Mali and Zambia against Ghana, one would automatically say that in a tournament ruled by the unheralded and the unknown, ultimately, the final would be a match between two giants in Ghana and Ivory Coast. But then that would not be a fairytale. And destiny had other plans.

In the first semi-final between Zambia and Ghana, the four-time champions started regally and were all over Zambia in the opening minutes with brothers Andre and Jordan Ayew in supreme form. The pressure bore fruit as in the eighth minute Davis Nkausu tripped Kwadwo Asamoah in the area to concede a penalty to Ghana. Ghana’s poster boy, Asamoah Gyan stepped up, but in an eerie similarity to the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals against Uruguay, his penalty was saved. Zambia, who had started the tournament in a free flowing attacking style, stymied down for this match. Manager Herve Renard, who was causing quite a flutter in his white shirt on the sidelines, put out two banks of four to restrict the creativity of The Black Stars. They allowed Ghana possession but maintained tight defensive cover to prevent any damages. After thoroughly restricting them, Renard finally made his attacking substitutions and the Chipolopolo started pressing forward in their inimitable style. In the 78th minute, Ghana right back Samuel Inkoom faltered under pressure to give substitute Emmanuel Mayuka, the only Zambian to play in Europe, the chance to score and lead 1-0. Ghana then had Derek Boateng sent off for a second caution with six minutes to go as they tried hard to equalise but crashed out at the semi-final stage for the third consecutive CAN tournament. Zambia had qualified for the finals and were to move to Libreville, in Gabon, a place already tragically and inimitably etched in their football history.

The second semifinal saw Mali adopt similar strategy as the Zambians, and it needed an incredible bit of skill from Arsenal forward Gervinho to provide the goal for Ivory Coast. Flicking the ball past Malian defender Ousmane Berthe, Gervinho sprinted 30 metres into the area before coolly finishing past goalkeeper Samba Diakite. That was enough to seal a 1-0 win for Ivory Coast. The golden generation of The Elephants had probably the final shot at winning a major championship together.

The Spirits of ‘93

The early 90’s were a time of immense promise for African football and long before the Super Eagles of Nigeria (94 World Cup) and the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon (90 World Cup), there was a bunch of Zambians who had served notice by thumping an Italian team consisting of Ciro Ferrara, Mauro Tassotti, Angelo Colombo and Gianluca Pagliuca among others in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The star man that day was Kalusha Bwalya, scoring a hat-trick. Unarguably, the greatest Zambian footballer of all times, Bwalya, like contemporary Liberian George Weah, carried a team completely on his own shoulders. His efforts to take Zambia towards major honours, was coming to fruition as the Chipolopolohad qualified for the second group league in a bid to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. It was April 1993 and the Zambians had beaten the favourites Morocco in their first match and in a three-team group with a weak

The 1990’s Zambia team. Everybody perished in the ’93 disaster except Kalusha Bwalya(2nd left, standing)

Senegal team, they were favoured now to qualify. However, as the 18-member team flew for their away match at Senegal, tragedy struck and the plane crashed killing everybody on board, just off the coast of Libreville in Gabon. Kalusha survived, coming on a separate flight from his European club stint.

Despite a loss of a generation of players, Kalusha didn’t lose heart and promised that the Chipolopolo will rise again. A new team was assembled to take on the rest of the matches. In the end, Zambia fell one point short of qualification, and that point and more was lost in that away match against Senegal, when in their first match with a completely new squad, the Zambians could only draw 0-0. Even a 4-0 thrashing of the same Senegal team at home was not enough as the Chipolopolo were beaten on the final day by Morocco, who qualified.

 One year later, Kalusha led another Zambian team, this time in the 1994 CAN. Zambia rode an avalanche of emotion and reached the finals. It was said that the spirits of ’93 would sweep them to their first ever international win. But the Super Eagles of Nigeria were too much for them that night carving a 2-1 win. Two years later, in 1996, Zambia would again reach the semifinals of CAN but again lose out. That was to be the end of Zambia’s exploits among the African elite.  In 2008, a retired Kalusha took over as the President of the Zambian Football Association and started a new fight to keep the promise he had made back in 1993. So on 10th February 2012, three days before the final, Kalusha was confident, “We hope we will rise to the occasion on Sunday.” He didn’t mention the Spirits of ’93 but the team gathered on the beach the next day, to lay wreaths in memory of the fallen heroes of ’93. It was indeed destiny that despite reaching the finals, this was going to be the only match that Zambia would be playing at Libreville, having played all previous matches at other venues. The spirits would be watching over.

The Final

The final itself though was preceded by the most spectacular closing ceremony ever, in a CAN. Gabon president Ali Bongo’s mother sang for fans and giant images of the tournament’s football-playing gorilla mascot were projected onto the pitch in a high-tech closing ceremony. American singer Akon was also part of the show. FIFA president Sepp Blatter presented a pennant to both host countries’ presidents.

The match, when it started, saw another tactical shift from the Zambian manager Herve Renard. Instead of sitting back, Zambia took the game to Ivory Coast and it was a very exciting first half between the teams. Ivory Coast sat back trying to absorb the pressure and hit on the counter. One such move in the second half bore fruit as Gervinho was brought down giving Ivory Coast a penalty. Captain Drogba came to take it and hit a horrendous penalty out. Twice in two matches, the Chipolopolo had conceded a penalty, only to see the most feared opposition striker muff it up. Some may call it luck for the Chipolopolo, while others talked about the spirits watching over. It was that kind of tournament.

The match thereafter remained an exciting battle but with no goals scored it went to the penalty shootout. Both teams though seemed extremely ready for the same. All the shots were converted, including the one from a very brave Drogba, who took the ninth kick and so it went to sudden death. Even in sudden death, the ball kept going in and the score stood at 7-7 when Gervinho refused to take the 15th kick. Kolo Toure stepped up; but his shot was saved. With history beckoning, Rainford Kalaba of Zambia took the 16th kick. But he hit it miles over. Gervinho finally came to take the 17th kick but his shot too went over. Stopila Sunzu, an unheralded centre back who plays for Congolese side TP Mazembe then stepped up to convert and send  millions of Zambians and neutrals into raptures. Zambia had won a mammoth tie-breaker 8-7.

The celebrations were spontaneous and emotional. Kalusha was overwhelmed with emotion as the players converged. The next day The Zambia Daily Mail carried the headline, “Finally, Destiny Obeys Zambia”. Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene said that the spirits of the dead footballers will now rest in peace. Efford Chabala, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Kelvin “Malaza” Mutale,Timothy Mwitwa, Numba Mwila, Richard Mwanza, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Kenan Simambe, Godfrey Kangwa, Winter Mumba and Patrick “Bomber” Banda may only have been present in spirit but they too would have basked in the glory of the first ever international win for Zambia in such a poignant stadium.

Fairy tales are not always to be found in books….sometimes they do unfold before our very own eyes.