But a stunning 2-1 victory over the 2002 World Cup quarter-finalists set the tone for the impressive Chipolopolo run in the preliminary stage, emerging as Group A winners, following a 2-2 draw with hardfighting Libya and upsetting the mammoth home crowd to get a 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea.
Team unity, a result of having a core group of players who had played in the national team set-up for close to a decade, was visible.
With no talismanic player to build the team around, it relied on the experience of several veterans like captain Katongo, battle-hardened from featuring in several Nations Cup tournaments.
Katongo and his younger brother Felix were part of the team that featured at the 2006 finals in Egypt, that also included Joseph Musonda, goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, Isaac Chansa and James Chamanga.
Rainford Kalaba and Davis Nkausu, who formed the heart of the midfield, were part of an Under-17 side that coach Simataa Simataa had put together in 2002, whilst Stoppila Sunzu and Hichani Himoonde have been developing from their time in the U-20 team.
Refusing to tolerate any acts of indiscipline, Renard would not hesitate to apply the axe against those that failed to subject himself to his regimen and camp rules. It is an extremely bitter lesson that Clifford Mulenga, the 2007 CAF Young Player of the Year, who plays his club football for South Africa’s Bloemfontein Celtic, will never forget.
Refusing to apologise to Renard for going out with some of his colleagues after their victory over Equatorial Guinea, Mulenga was expelled from the squad before their quarter-final game against Sudan.
While his colleagues enjoy the glory and adulation that come with winning the Cup of Nations, Mulenga can only wonder what could have been for him.
“I just want to say [I] am very sorry to my parents, my siblings, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunties, my friends, fans, supporters, soccer lovers, the Zambia national team, my friends in the national team, my club Bloemfontein Celtic and my church,” Mulenga said on his Facebook page. “I have no excuse for what I did in Malabo, leading to my expulsion from the Zambian team. I am not looking for sympathy or a shoulder to cry on but all I am asking of you is forgiveness,” he pleaded.
With Mulenga’s departure from the camp, the Chipolopolo trudged on and became the first team to qualify for the semi-finals, earning an emphatic 3-0 win over Sudan in Bata. After Stopila Sunzu had scored the game’s opening goal, Zambia had the added advantage of playing against a 10-man Sudanese team, as Saif Eldin was given a red card for fouling Rainford Kalaba in the box. Christopher Katongo calmly converted the penalty kick, whilst James Chamanga put the victory beyond doubt with a final strike.
The task of defeating Ghana, the 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists, in the semi-finals was regarded by continental pundits as an impossible task. And when David Nkausu fouled Kwadwo Asamoah, Ghana’s talismanic midfielder, in the penalty area, it truly looked like Zambia’s tournament run had come to its end.
But like he did at the 2010 World Cup finals, missing what would have been a match-winning penalty that could have taken Ghana to the semi-finals, Asamoah Gyan relived his nightmare. Gyan’s failure to convert yet another crucial penalty gave an unexpected lifeline to the Zambians, who did not fail to make the most of the opportunity, as Emmanuel Mayuka scored the winner in the 78th minute.
Earning passage to the final, which was a pleasant surprise for the majority of Zambia’s 12 million people, heightened expectations of paying the ultimate tribute to the players that had sadly lost their lives, whilst serving the nation, in the plane crash.