That Stoppila Sunzu had Zambia’s last chance was symmetry. His successful penalty last February against Côte d’Ivoire in the final shoot-out was the coda to a lyrical journey.
But less than a year later, the defender’s right-footed shot on the turn in the dying seconds was technically impressive but just wide of the mark. Had it found the net, there’d be talk throughout the land of Stoppilage Time.
But in January 2013 other laws apply. Zambia’s goalless draw against Burkina Faso allowed the west Africans to advance as winners of Group C.
The defending champions were out. Nigeria had the runners-up spot courtesy of their 2-0 victory over a hapless Ethiopia. In truth Zambia were only in with a chance of qualification after being awarded a soft penalty late in the match against Nigeria on 25 Janaury.
“It is better to have won something in your life than to always get to the quarter final and never win anything," Zambia coach Hervé Renard declared pragmatically in the wake of elimination. "Of course everyone is sad about not getting through to the last eight but we did our maximum. The players performed well but we didn’t score. It’s really not the end of the world.”
‘Twas ever thus for the vanquished in sport. In the oft-misquoted line of Liverpool’s legendary Scottish boss Bill Shankley, football is more important than life or death.
Zambia will forever carry the baggage of one-tournament wonders. But that’s no bad load. Last year’s trip was mesmerisingly joyous. And Renard, ever the practical motivator, will be doing his utmost to ensure that his squad imbibes the flow of 2013.
“I’m very proud of my players,” he says. And in a forthright riposte to the jibes of a Zambian journalist, he adds, “A few years back Zambia never made it into the knockout stages. We have to accept the present result because that's what happens in football.”
Algeria were the last title-holders to fall before the quarter-finals. That was back in 1992 and there’s no argument that the timbre of football on the continent has altered. Goliaths have been routinely humbled by the Davids.
Zambia’s existential question after the fall is: does one Africa Cup of Nations trophy entitle them to believe they are a continental powerhouse?
The pundits and commentators back home ululating about the early exit would appear to reside in that camp. But Renard’s review of the reality may check such lavish lamentation. It may also hold Zambia’s key to sustained relevance.
In the 2008 competition, Zambia were eliminated in the first round. A visibly pained Kalusha Bwalya set out on the radical approach (for an African football administrator) of building for the future. Christopher Katongo was anointed as the fulcrum of the development. Renard, who was the assistant coach to Ghana at the tournament, was given the chance to prove himself as a leader.
The Cup of Nations in 2010 saw vindication of Bwalya’s vision thing. Zambia reached the quarter finals and lost to Nigeria in a penalty shoot-out. The apogee of the dream was a sultry night in Libreville in 2012.
Is the draw with Burkina Faso the end or just a setback?
Context will be all over the coming weeks in the administrative portals of the Zambia Football Association in Lusaka. It would be risky to ditch Renard while 2014 World Cup qualification is a possibility. If anyone has the capacity to reenergise the squad it is the 44-year-old Frenchman.
He came to the tournament telling his players that they had to maintain their humility. Overconfidence, he claims was their mistake in the match against Ethiopia. They were 1-0 up and Ethiopia were down to 10 men. The Ethiopians played the game of their lives to bring it back to 1-1.
But the opponents, in announcing themselves to the tournament after 31 years of absence, had expended all their energy. Ethiopia, without two key players in the subsequent games, were thrashed by Burkina Faso 4-0 and were ragged in their defeat to Nigeria.
The pitch in Nelspruit was also a contributory factor to Zambia’s demise. An algae infection ravaged it after torrential rain in the area. Covering the ground in sand was deemed the answer.
But clearly not for Zambia.
“If I say too much about this, people will say I’m crying,” says Renard. “But the pitch was terrible. All the other coaches say the same thing. Zambia’s game is about moving the ball with short passes on the floor. When we came to look at the pitch six weeks before the tournament, it was the best pitch in South Africa. I don’t know what happened. But it’s just a sign that it wasn’t meant to be for us.
“I could have perhaps changed the composition of the squad but it would have been difficult to do that. And to be honest with you, to play with eight defenders and to look to kick the ball into touch at the first sign of trouble doesn’t really interest me.
“I adored watching my team even if we didn’t win. I saw them trying things. They didn’t give up and kick it out. They tried to keep it.”
In the long run elimination on the new terms might just keep Renard in his job.
Would a people craving the style of the all conquering team lost in the Libreville plane crash in 1993 really be happy with a collection of chunky cloggers? Would those lost spirits really have come back that night last year to orchestrate victory over Côte D’Ivoire if the upshot were to be stolid pragmatism? The glory narrative screams no.
But there is undoubtedly room for improvement.
“Maybe some players were not at their best level,” Renard reflects. “But generally this group is a very good group. There are some young players coming through who are very good. I’m not worried for Zambia – even if I’m not around. They have skilful players. What we simply need is to be more efficient in front of goal.
“In 2012 we were just more efficient. The pitches were better as well. But in a tight game like the one against Burkina Faso, last year we won such a game. That’s the difference. But that’s football.”
Margins, injuries, pitches, misses, referees, triumph, despair. In the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, another legendary Scottish manger: Football, bloody hell!