JOHANNESBURG, South Africa 11 – Zambia will parade an even stronger squad than last year when they defend the Africa Cup of Nations title won against massive odds in Gabon.
In come defender Emmanuel Mbola, midfielder William Njobvu and striker Jacob Mulenga, who missed the dramatic triumph 12 months ago when Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) stunned firm favourites Ivory Coast.
After regular and extra time failed to deliver a goal, it came down to a penalty shoot-out and defender Stoppila Sunzu calmly stroked the ball into the corner to give his country a maiden title.
Mbola, from former Champions League winners Porto, missed out because of a FIFA suspension and injuries sidelined Israel-based Njobvu and Mulenga from Dutch outfit Utrecht.
It was fitting that Zambia should succeed in Libreville as a military aircraft carrying the 1993 national squad to Senegal for a World Cup qualifier crashed into the sea just off the coastal city, killing all on board.
French coach Herve Renard could not contain his feelings after Sunzu scored to shake African football to the core with his team given no chance of winning a tournament expected to be dominated by Ivory Coast and Ghana.
“It was written in the stars,” said the young Frenchman, who became famous not only for his motivational skills but also for wearing the same white shirt and denim jeans at each of the six Zambian matches.
A safe bet is that the fair-haired pin-up of African football coaches will wear the same shirt and jeans when he stands, arms folded, beside the dug-out for the January 21 Group C opener against Ethiopia in Nelspruit.
He will also be desperate for maximum points against the Walias Antelopes, believing a good start to the tournament is vital if they are top a group that also includes powerful Nigeria and perennial underachievers Burkina Faso.
“The first game against Ethiopia is very important — it is crucial that we start the tournament with a win just as we did last year,” Renard told reporters as the team prepared in South Africa.
“A lot of pundits do not believe we can win the title again and do not want to take risks with their predictions. It is easier to say Zambia will never win the Cup of Nations again.
“Should we fail to retain the trophy, it simply means another team was better than us. However, it will be very difficult to beat this Zambian team,” he warned amid domestic media criticism of poor warm-up results.
Renard reacted to losses against Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Angola by reminding doubters that the build-up to the 2012 Africa Cup was hardly inspiring as Zambia were held by minnows Namibia and a depleted South Africa.
With classy midfielder Rainford Kalaba recovered from a groin injury, the coach can choose from a full-strength squad with goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, defender Sunzu and captain and striker Christopher Katongo other key figures.