Zambia’s players go into Sunday’s final against Côte d’Ivoire in the Gabonese capital with the tag of underdogs.
But on the eve of the game, the talk from the camp is of spirits. Goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene praises the brotherly bonds forged from days in national youth teams.
And skipper Chris Katongo is swift to pay tribute to the camaraderie that has fired the team’s unheralded adventure to the final.
Coach Hervé Renard simply points to occurrences during matches that seem otherworldly.
When they arrived in Libreville, the Zambia squad and their assistants went to the site of the accident and laid flowers to commemorate the 18 players who perished. There were 30 victims in all.
One of them should have been Kalusha Bwalya. The skipper of that fabled side wasn’t with this team-mates on the voyage to the World Cup qualifier in Senegal because he was making his own way to the game from Europe where he was playing for PSV Eindhoven.
Now 48 and the president of the Zambia Football Association, he led the emotional pilgrimage to where his comrades died.
Bwalya described the visit as a chance for the old team and the new team to connect. Katonga said the journey had sharpened the sense of loss even for those who were too young to recollect the day.
“It was too much for some of the guys when we went there,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s not that we needed to go there for it to become fresh. The feeling of that tragedy is always fresh for the Zambian people. You know when we play a game, especially at Independence Stadium in Lusaka where they are buried, everybody mentions them.”
Striker Emmanuel Mayuka admitted he was moved by the ceremony. “For me, to go there, was an honour and it brings lots of sad memories.”
The 21-year-old added: “I was a small kid when it happened but I’ve heard lots of stories about that team and I’ve seen some of their games on tapes. I want to do everything I can do to finish what they started.”
While the Zambians contemplate the potency of intangible forces, Cote d’Ivoire will be an all-too-real substance on Sunday night. Captained by the Chelsea forward Didier Drogba, powered in midfield by Manchester City’s Yaya Touré, the reigning African Footballer of the Year, and anchored by his brother, Kolo, the Ivorians are a unit of guile, experience and unrealised dreams. In their march to the final they’ve scored nine goals and have yet to concede.
Katongo added: “You can name the line up of Côte d’Ivoire but for the Zambians you’re not going to be able to do that. This is the challenge that we face.
“But if I want to be on top, I need to face the giants and you cannot be on top without facing the people on top. The Ivorians are Africa’s highest-rated side, they are favourites but this is the moment for us to shine and if we shine we are going to be on top.”
Zambia caused a stir in the semi-final on Wednesday in Bata by beating the hot favourites Ghana 1-0.
Mweene saved a seventh-minute penalty before Mayuka scored 13 minutes from time.
The Free States Star keeper described the parry as the most important of his career.
“After the save I just felt we were going to win,” said the 27-year-old. “It was something good for me to help the team and they helped me. It was my time to do my job and I did it. Later it was a defender’s time to do his job and he did it. And then Emmanuel scored. He did his job. I wasn’t the hero. Emmanuel wasn’t the hero. It was the whole team.”
That Zambia are into the final four years after being eliminated in the first round in Ghana is a testament to Bwalya’s courage and faith in a system.
After that early exit in 2008, he said the team needed to gain experience together and develop patiently. The alchemy between ambitious youngsters from the under-20 and under-23 sides and an aspirational coach has harvested dividends.
Renard, who led Zambia to the quarter-finals in Angola in 2010, said: “Our objective was to do better. Two years ago we reached the last eight so naturally the semi-final was our target in this tournament. Now we’ve got to an even higher level but that’s what you’ve got to do in football.
“For us it’s not a surprise, even if it is a surprise to some of the pundits. But we’re not going to change anything about our behaviour just because we’re in the final. We’re there and we’re there to win it.”
The Ivorians were beaten finalists in Egypt in 2006 and dispatched from the 2008 tournament in the semi-finals by the same opponents.
And Katonga points to that same Egyptian team to underline the team ethic.
“They won it three times on the trot but nobody talks about them,” he said. “I give them respect. Everybody talks about Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire because they went to the World Cup, but the Egyptians held the cup for six years. They didn’t have names playing in London or Manchester .”
And if the Ivorians have an Achilles' heel it tends to be shown to sides composed of players who are unknown in Europe. Algeria undid them in the quarter-finals in Angola .
That defeat two years ago was a shock. A loss to a team comprising men who ply their trade in China, South Africa, Switzerland and Zambia would be another.
“But why would it be?” Katonga demanded. “Yes, there are surprises in every situation, not just in football. Every team that qualifies for this tournament has a chance to win it. Côte d’Ivoire has a chance to win and so do we. They want to take it home and we want to take it home. So now it’s down to two.”
But for Zambians, a third team will be present.