On Wednesday night, just after Zambia had dumped Ghana out to qualify for Sunday night’s Africa Cup of Nations final against Cote d’Ivoire, a telephone call came through Kalusha Bwalya’s handset.
The caller requested to speak to Christopher Katongo.
Sweat was still dripping from the Zambia team captain’s forehead as he sipped cold water while addressing journalists. He immediately cut short the post-match interview to attend to the call.
“Katongo?” inquired a male voice on the other end, to which the captain responded in the affirmative. “This is President Sata calling.”
Despite being a soldier in his country’s army (he was promoted last week to the rank of Warrant Officer Class One), Katongo did not expect that call. Not from the country’s senior-most citizen.
Win it for country
“I couldn’t believe that I was speaking with the President,” said the soft-spoken player. “It’s not a usual thing, you know.
“He reminded us of the Gabon plane disaster and asked us to win it for the country.”
So, when play gets under way on Saturday night (10:30pm Kenyan time), Zambia, ranked 63 places below the Ivorians, will wish to execute their Commander-in-Chief’s order and become the first team to score a goal against Cote d’Ivoire since the start of battle three weeks ago.
It has been an exciting tournament, with many great goals, played for all or nothing as big national teams fell by the wayside. Contrary to popular opinion, teams playing tonight have had the best football in the tournament.
Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire certainly deserve to be playing in this match, because they gave us great tactical display, organised defence, fair play and no speculation with results. They have always gone for what we like to see – goals – and the victory.
Didier Drogba and company have been the favourites to lift the trophy, having cruised their way here thanks to the quality of their players.
The Ivorians have not disappointed their fans like they did in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and they have played to expectations. They have also ridden on luck.
The Chipolopolo, too, have played a great tournament so far. They won four matches and drew one. In their semi-final triumph over four-time champions Ghana, the Zambians proved beyond doubt that they had the tenacity, resilience and ingenuity to overcome all odds.
Fantastic penalty save
Their defence was as solid as ever, coupled with a mature character and managed to fend off incessant attacks in the first half – including a fantastic penalty save by goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene.
Looking at individual talent as as Katongo’s boys match into the Nations Cup final for the third time, Zambia are inferior to the Elephants and their English Premier League super stars. But these men will sell their defeat at a very high price.
Cote d’Ivoire boasts an enviable record in this tournament, not only have they won all their five matches but they have also avoided conceding a single goal, against nine scored.
Zambia, who were runners-up the year after the 1993 plane tragedy, have scored nine goals but conceded three. They have won four of their games and drawn one.
An indestructible defence coupled with forwards who can strike at will is the cornerstone of Cote d’Ivoire’s supremacy.
“Our aim has been to not let in any goals and with the strikers we’ve got, at any moment we can make the difference,” Salomon Kalou said.
Both sides have highly gifted and experienced players who should serve out an exciting game of football.