LUSAKA, Zambia, February 10 – Before the Africa Cup of Nations, bookmakers regarded Zambia as underdogs set for an early exit. Now heading into the final, they’re poised for a stunning comeback from one of football’s greatest tragedies.
The Copper Bullets have seen off all rivals so far, setting off wild celebrations in Zambia, starting with the opening-day victory over favourites Senegal.
Now heading to the final, the nation sees their triumphs as a fitting honour for the national team that perished off the coast of Gabon on April 28, 1993, when a Zambian Air Force flight ditched into the sea, killing all 30 people on board as they headed toward a World Cup qualifier in Senegal.
“The only way to honour our heroes will by emerging victorious,” said Zeddy Saileti, assistant coach at Nkana FC, a top Zambian team based in the Copperbelt town of Kitwe.
After beating Ghana to win a spot in the finals Sunday, the air in Zambia pregnant with expectation and excitement has been palpable about the impending clash between the Chipolopolo “Copper Bullets” and the Elephants of Ivory Coast.
In the capital Lusaka, replica jerseys for the Chipolopolo Boys are sold on every street of the capital and the vendors are reaping high. Whistling, honking, and blowing of vuvuzelas is almost non-stop, as some die-hard football lovers walk the strets with their faces painted in Zambia colours.
Their victories have been splashed across the front pages, even dominating the editorial columns normally devoted to politics.
After the last whistle of each match, Zambians take to the streets to celebrate the victory, in scenes last scene when Michael Sata was declared winner of the September 20 presidential elections in an upset victory.
Some of the celebrations have ended in tragedy. After the Ghana match, Zambia recorded 32 traffic accidents that left seven dead, said police spokeswoman Elizabeth Kanjela.
A total of 11 deaths have been blamed on celebrations during the month-long tournament.
Despite those accidents, Zambians believe their team has what it takes to become the continent’s champions for the first time.
Nkana coach Linos Makwaza and his assitant Saileti were on the national side that made it to the 1994 finals in Tunisia, only to lose out 2-1 to Nigeria.
This time will be different, he said.
“It is a wonderful thing to reach the final of the Africa Cup. The team deserves it because they have played well from the beginning,” Makwaza said.