Every so often an event occurs in sport where it feels that fate has decided the outcome. This was how it felt watching the final of the African Cup of Nations football tournament. In 1993 a plane carrying the Zambian national football team which was the best in the nation’s history crashed after a refuelling stop in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. The team was wiped-out and the entire country was devastated.
Nineteen years later the final stages of the African Nations Cup were held in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The Zambian team wasn’t expected to be one of the contenders even though many of the continent’s footballing powers hadn’t qualified. North Africa had dominated recent tournaments with Egypt taking the previous three but by the semi-final stages this time the North Africans had all gone home.
Both host nations exited in the quarter-finals leaving favourites Ghana and Ivory Coast to play Zambia and Mali respectively. The Ivorians progressed as expected and reached the final without having conceded a goal. However, their West African neighbours Ghana lost to the only goal of the game against Zambia.
Zambia had played all of their earlier games in Equatorial Guinea but the final was in Libreville with all of its emotional resonance for the Zambians. The Ivory Coast were strongly fancied to win and when Africa’s most celebrated current player Didier Drogba lined up to take a penalty with the game goalless it appeared that the game would go their way. However, Drogba blazed the ball over the bar to reprieve the Zambians, who on the balance of play didn’t deserve to be behind.
The game reached full time with the teams still level at 0-0 and extra time saw no goals. We came to penalties. This was the Ivory Coast’s “Golden Generation” of footballers but they had been unable to win the African Cup for twenty years. Could they cope with the pressure? It appeared so. They scored their first five penalties,although one that had been saved had to be retaken as the goalkeeper moved from his line. However, this wasn’t enough as the Zambians calmly scored their five as well. This took the game to sudden-death penalties. Both teams scored their first two. Then Toure missed for the Ivory Coast. If Zambia scored they would win, but they didn’t. Gervinho stepped up for the Ivorians and missed. Another chance for the Zambians. This time they took it and scored the winning penalty. This was Zambia’s first ever triumph in the tournament.
The players in their moment of victory paid tribute to the team of 1993. If ever destiny had decided in advance who would win an event then surely this was it.