History Honoured: Zambia’s Emotional AFCON 2012 Triumph

zambia afcon 2012

We are just 10 games into the new Premier League season, but Brighton have suffered two massive losses already. After finding themselves in the Champions League places after their first four games, which included a first-ever league win at Old Trafford, the Seagulls’ fans were optimistic about what they could achieve. Unfortunately, it was short-lived, and magic-working manager Graham Potter was snapped up by Chelsea. A move to a bigger club that I think all fans were expecting at some point, but maybe not quite as early as seven games into the season.

Not only have the Seagulls lost one of the most in-demand managers in the Premier League, 24-year-old midfielder Enock Mwepu has been forced into an early retirement, after being diagnosed with a hereditary heart condition. After joining from Red Bull Salzburg in 2021, it would be fair to say that the Zambian made quite the impression in his maiden campaign.

Unfortunately, as an Arsenal fan, I witnessed first-hand what Mwepu could bring to the table when he smashed home a venomous volley from the edge of the box at the Emirates. He ticks all the boxes of a box-to-box midfielder, possessing the four P’s: pace, power, physicality and pressing. Obviously, his health is the number one priority, but his absence will leave a massive dent in Brighton’s midfield, especially with the departure of Yves Bissouma in the summer. It also leaves Zambia with an uphill task in their Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign.

Chipolopolo, as they are nicknamed in Africa, didn’t qualify for AFCON 2021, which Senegal won in January 2022, nor did they qualify for AFCON 2022, which is due to be played in January 2023. However, Zambia currently sit second in their qualifying group for AFCON 2023, which you guessed it, will be played in 2024.

Besides the confusing scheduling of the tournament, Zambia’s hopes of appearing in Ivory Coast have taken a massive dent as a result of Mwepu’s sudden retirement. The burden on the shoulders of Leicester’s Patson Daka is even more heavily now, as Chipolopolo look to qualify for the first time since 2015.

However, it wouldn’t be the first time that a Zambian striker known to the Premier League has carried the nation to the tournament. Emmanuel Mayuka, a name that most Southampton fans will want to forget in a hurry, scored three goals in the qualifying group to secure Zambia’s place at the 2012 AFCON finals. Going into the tournament 71st in the FIFA rankings, nobody gave them a chance, and they were widely considered to just be making up the numbers.

Hosted in Gabon, a country that elicited poignant memories for all Zambians after the 1993 tragedy, the Copper Bullets defied all odds, creating one of the most fitting fairy-tale storylines that football has produced. This piece will tell the story of how little-old Zambia overcame the rest of the continent to be crowned AFCON champions for the first time in its history.

The Squad

Europe has become an extremely popular destination for Africa’s finest talents, and in recent years the Premier League has seen an influx of exports from the continent. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge of Manchester United, to find a title-winning team without any African representation.

Most nations that compete at AFCON will have an abundance of talent plying their trade in one of Europe’s top divisions, but for Zambia, this was certainly not the case. With 18 of the 23-man squad still playing their club football in Africa, Chipolopolo were missing the European pedigree that their competition had. Especially when only two of the five players outside of Africa were actually situated in Europe.

At the time of the tournament, midfielder Chisamba Lungu was playing his club football in Russia for second-tier side Ural Yekaterinburg. The other European representative was Emmanuel Mayuka, who was plying his trade for Young Boys out in Switzerland. Although, his form at AFCON 2012 caught the eye of Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, who parted with £3 million to bring the Zambian to the Saints.

Luckily for the Zambian fans, their French manager, Hervé Renard, had a plethora of worldwide experience. For those Football Manager fans reading this, take a look at his Wikipedia page, he’s the real-life example of a journeyman. With spells in his native France with SC Draguignan and AS Cherbourg, combined with stints at Vietnamese side Nam Dinh and English League Two outfit Cambridge United, it would be fair to say that his passport is well-stamped.

After previously guiding Chipolopolo to the quarter-final stage of the African Cup of Nations in 2010, Renard returned to the dugout for a second crack at Africa’s most prestigious competition. Whilst the competition favoured the bigger nations with more European experience, reigning champions Egypt, and three-time winners Nigeria both failed to qualify for the tournament. The odds were still slim, but as we all know with tournament football, anything can happen.

Group A Champions

Their AFCON journey got off to a very difficult start on paper, as they were drawn into a group with Equatorial Guinea, Libya, and Senegal. Senegal went into the tournament as one of the favourites, with deadly strike force Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse tearing the Premier League up at Newcastle, and it was they who Zambia faced first.

Played on the first day of the tournament, the fixture also provided fans with the first major upset of AFCON 2012, as Zambia came out 2-1 winners. It was a game that for the most part, Senegal dominated, but first-half strikes from Mayuka and Rainford Kalaba saw them shock the world. Renard had nailed the tactical side of the game, lining up in a low-block designed to draw the opposition onto them, before releasing the pacey Mayuka and Christopher Katongo on the counter-attack.

All the pre-match talk was about how many Ba and Cisse were going to score, but in all honestly, they barely had a sniff. The shock defeat to Zambia had severe ramifications for the remainder of Senegal’s tournament, and they bowed out of the group stage without picking up a single point.

Up next for the Copper Bullets was Libya, who were coming off the back of a 1-0 defeat in match day one. Easier candidates on paper, but the tie actually proved to be a more difficult challenge for Renard’s side. Two goals apiece, and two equalisers from Zambia tell the story of what was a thrilling game for the neutral. Mayuka once again found himself on the scoresheet and was proving himself to be quite the talisman for Chipolopolo.

After picking up four points in their opening two games, Zambia were already guaranteed a place in the knockout stages, however, their final group fixture would determine what position they finished the group in. Opponents, Equatorial Guinea, were having quite the tournament themselves, beating both Libya and Senegal to secure maximum points. Only a win would see the Copper Bullets top the group, and that is exactly what they did. A 1-0 victory saw Chipolopolo top the group, with Equatorial Guinea progressing in 2nd place.

Renard Renaissance

Awaiting Chipolopolo in the quarter-finals was Sudan, who weren’t exactly fancied themselves. If Zambia’s lack of European representatives was highlighted, then it must be said that the entirety of Sudan’s 23-man squad all played domestic football in the Sudanese Premier League. An excellent opportunity for Renard and his players to qualify for their first semi-final since 1996. An opportunity that they did not pass up on.

A dominant 3-0 victory saw Zambia overcome Sudan, who were reduced to 10 men just after half time. Probably the most comfortable game of the whole tournament for Chipolopolo, who had soon established themselves as the neutrals’ favourite side for their gritty determined displays.

However, their semi-final opponents also established themselves as the neutral’s sweetheart, for their performances at the 2010 World Cup. Ghana’s extraordinary tournament in South Africa will live long in the memory, reaching the quarter-final stage – which is still to this day the joint furthest that an African team has managed at the World Cup.

If it wasn’t for Luis Suarez’s unsporting double-handed save in the closing stages of extra time, then the Black Stars would have been semi-finalists. As it happened, Asamoah Gyan thundered the resulting penalty onto the crossbar and the rest is history.

This injustice, along with their all-out attacking mindset earned Ghana lots of plaudits, and the core of their squad remained for their 2012 AFCON campaign. For obvious reasons, Ghana were the outright favourites for the tournament, and the fixture was portrayed as the footballing version of David vs Goliath. With John Mensah in defence, Sulley Muntari in midfield, and the Ayew brothers in attack, Zambia had their work cut out if they were to progress to the final.

The game played out as you’d expect, with Zambia sitting deep and Ghana pushing men forward onto them. After wave after wave of attacks with no end result, it looked to all the world that the Black Stars would make the breakthrough when they were awarded a penalty on the stroke of half time. Gyan stepped up to take it, looking to make amends for his miss in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final, but it must have felt like a horrible case of Deja Vu for the Ghanaian.

Zambia keeper, Kennedy Mweene, pulled off a wonderful diving save down to his left-hand side, writing himself into the Zambian history books in the process. A wasted opportunity for Ghana, but they still had 45 minutes to find the breakthrough. Surely Chipolopolo couldn’t survive the onslaught in the second half, and the goal would finally come.

Correct, the goal did come, but for Zambia……

Cometh the hour, cometh the man Mayuka

That man again, delivering a sucker punch to Ghanaian hearts. In a rare foray forward for Zambia, the ball was zipped into the feet of the former Southampton striker, who worked a yard of space and dispatched his shot into the bottom corner with pinpoint accuracy. A goal worthy of winning any game, and it did in fact turn out to be the winner. One of the biggest upsets staged in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Mayuka’s moment of magic was rightly plastered on the back pages of pretty much every newspaper, but Mweene’s contribution shouldn’t go unnoticed. Ghana had 18 shots in the game, including Gyan’s penalty, but couldn’t find a way past the Zambian keeper, who had the game of his life. He was later named in the AFCON team of the season for his efforts, deservedly so. The shot-stopper’s heroics saw Chipolopolo qualify for the AFCON final for the first time since 1994, whilst Ghana’s 30-year wait for a trophy continued.

A Date with Destiny

Africa has produced some amazing world-class talents throughout the years, but no country has assembled them quite as consistently as Zambia’s final opponents, Ivory Coast. Labelled the ‘golden generation’, for obvious reasons, I’m not sure if there has been a stronger African national side on paper than the Elephants squad between 2010 and 2015.

Going into AFCON 2012, Yaya Toure had just been named African footballer of the year in 2011, whilst his older brother, Kolo, was in fine form for Manchester City. Need I say much about Didier Drogba? Arguably the best African player to grace the Premier League, the man for the big occasions. His goalscoring record in finals didn’t bode well for Renard’s side.

Given that they hadn’t conceded a single goal throughout the whole tournament, Ivory Coast went into the game as the substantial favourites. Plucky Zambia had done well up until this point, exceeding all expectations placed on them before the tournament began, but Francois Zahoui’s team were a whole different kettle of fish.

The final was to be played in the Gabon capital, Libreville, a city attached to some traumatic memories for the nation of Zambia. 19 years earlier, in 1993, what should have been a customary flight to Senegal turned into one of the nation’s, if not the continent’s, biggest tragedies. All 30 passengers, 18 of them players, sadly lost their lives, after the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Gabon following a short stop to refuel.

The whole country mourned the deaths of those involved, and semi-final hero, Mweene, claimed that the Copper Bullets’ main goal throughout the tournament was to “put the souls of our fallen heroes to rest”. Ivory Coast may have had a star-studded squad, but Zambia had history to honour. It didn’t matter who was put in front of them, Chipolopolo were hellbent on rewriting history.

120 Minutes of Agony

As to be expected, the game was pretty one-sided, with Ivory Coast dominating possession. That being said, they had done absolutely nothing with it, and the Zambia goal was not challenged half as much as everyone anticipated. 

Ivory Coast’s key players had struggled to get into the game, as the Zambia defence shackled the likes of Drogba and Gervinho very effectively. Renard’s backs-to-the-wall approach may not have been the prettiest on the eye, in fact, it made Sam Allardyce’s football look like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, but it was certainly effective.

Despite being widely regarded as the ‘golden generation’, Ivory Coast had struggled to bring any silverware back to West Africa with them and the overwhelming pressure on the players was telling. On the other hand, Zambia thrived in the underdog role. They knew they wouldn’t have possession, and they knew that the whole world expected them to lose, but this only added fuel to the fire.

However, in the 70th minute of the game, the Copper Bullets’ hopes of seeing through the fairy-tale tournament took a severe turn for the worse. Another game, another penalty. Gervinho drifted infield from the right-hand side, driving into the box at speed before being bundled to the ground by two Zambian defenders. 

Drogba had earned a reputation throughout his career that saw him labelled ‘Mr Final’, and it just so happens that his penalty record was second to none. Mweene had already saved a spot kick from Ghana’s top goal scorer, now he had to try to repeat the trick with Ivory Coast’s top bagsman.

Up stepped the Ivorian to take the penalty, and what a penalty it was, if he was playing rugby….

The ball ballooned both high and wide of Mweene’s goal. His Jerzy Dudek-like antics to put the former Chelsea forward off seemingly worked. Luckily, I wasn’t old enough to bet at the time of the tournament, otherwise, I’d have been filing for bankruptcy. As an Englishman, I know a thing or two about bad penalties, and the Ivorian’s spot kick is up there with the worst I’ve seen. From about the age of seven, you’re taught not to lean back when kicking the ball. I know Drogba has a rebellious side to him, but this advice is maybe one he should have listened to.

The Zambian players celebrated the miss as much as they did Mayuka’s goal in the semi-final. They knew all along that they could pull off the fairy-tale story, but I think this was the point that the rest of the world believed it too. Maybe it was just meant to be.

The full-time whistle sounded with the scores still tied at 0-0, and 30 minutes of agonising extra time later and neither team could find the breakthrough. Ivory Coast became the only team in AFCON history not to concede throughout the whole tournament but still had to face the prospects of penalties to be crowned champions.

The Fairy-tale Ending

I hate penalties, as does every Englishman ever, but they are certainly entertaining for the neutral. Zambia may not have been favourites at the beginning of the game, but given Mweene’s penalty history, and Drogba’s Jonny Wilkinson impression, the odds looked to of shifted in the Copper Bullets’ favour.

Normally ahead of a penalty shootout, it’s nail-biting, watching through the fingers kind of stuff. Not for the Zambia bench, who burst into song. Very out of tune, but it showed the confidence that they had in the 10 players on the halfway line, and of course their heroic keeper. No fear, no pressure, dare I say it, but it was almost as if it was destiny kicking in.

With 14 penalties, and 14 goals, I can see why the recent AFCONs have been delayed now – the Confederation of African Football were just waiting to find out who the winners were. In amongst the goal blitz, Drogba redeemed his dreadful second-half spot kick, whilst Mweene showed he’s equally as good at taking them as he was saving them.

On the 15th penalty, Kolo Toure stepped up and saw his effort saved. All Kalaba needed to do was score, and Zambia would be champions. Visibly nervous, he took a deep breath and proceeded to take the worst penalty of the shootout, firing over the crossbar. Up next was Gervinho, whose walk from the halfway line looked as convincing as his spell at Arsenal. My hunch was right, and he side-footed his effort straight over the bar. Straight out of the second-half Drogba textbook.

Another lifeline for Zambia, and all the pressure fell on the shoulders of centre-back Stophira Sunzu. An absolute colossus throughout the tournament, although he didn’t strike me as the calm and composed head needed to slot away a high-pressure penalty. Luckily for Chipolopolo, I was wrong. Sunzu thundered the ball straight down the middle of the goal, past the diving Ivorian keeper. It was a stereotypical defender’s penalty, but it certainly did the trick.

The net nestled and the Zambian team sprinted towards Sunzu and Mweene, tears of joy streaming down each and every player’s face. Renard had guided his side to one of the biggest coups in international football, and wholesomely carried his injured defender, Joseph Musonda, onto the pitch to join in with the post-match celebrations. An iconic night for the nation of Zambia, and finally some positive memories attached to the nation of Gabon. The 1993 Zambian heroes were honoured in the most fitting way possible, by winning the most prestigious African competition for the first time in the nation’s history.