Zambia’s long-term plan earns African Cup success
Zambia captain Christopher Katongo thinks the team’s impressive
march to the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations is ”payback
time” for a six-year development plan.
African football is notorious for short-term thinking, with
foreign coaches often handed temporary contracts at the last minute
before big tournaments and players falling in and out of favor.
Inspired by former playing great and current federation
president Kalusha Bwalya, Zambia has opted to favor coaching
continuity and keeping the same core of young players together.
Now the team is on the verge of a first African Cup final since
1994, while traditional African heavyweights like Nigeria, Cameroon
and Egypt failed to even qualify for the tournament.
Recognized as Zambia’s best ever player, Bwalya was coach in
2006 when the team was eliminated in the group stage of the African
Bwalya resigned from the post after the tournament to move into
an administrative role at the Zambian football federation, becoming
president in 2008.
Katongo, a member of the 2006 squad, said underachievement in
that tournament led to a fundamental change in Zambian football
”The long plan was with the president (Kalusha Bwalya),”
Katongo said. ”We made a plan … to keep the players (together)
for four to five years. He insisted that we had to keep 70-80
percent of these players, so that we could see what we can
Despite Zambia’s record of regularly qualifying for the African
Cup, further success was not instantaneous.
Zambia again failed to make it out of the group stage in the
2008 African Cup under local coach Patrick Phiri.
French coach Herve Renard took over in May 2008 but had a
stuttering start in charge of the same core of players that had
played in the previous two tournaments.
Berths in the 2010 African Cup and 2010 World Cup were decided
in the same qualifying tournament, with Zambia just about making
the African tournament but finishing well behind Algeria and Egypt
in the race for a place at the World Cup.
Still, Zambia finally got out of the African Cup group stage in
2010 for the first time since 1996, topping a tough section
including Cameroon, Tunisia and Gabon, before losing on penalties
against Nigeria in the quarterfinals.
Renard was lured – apparently because of personal reasons – to
take the Angola coaching job soon after the tournament, but the
move did not work out and he was reappointed by Zambia just a few
months later in 2010.
Under a familiar coach, Katongo and his teammates secured a 15th
African Cup appearance by winning the qualification group and have
gone from strength to strength in the finals.
Only much-fancied Ghana in Wednesday’s semifinal stands in the
way of the Chipolopolo – or ”Copper Bullets” in English – making
”We have unity (in our) team,” Katongo said. ”Other teams
have good players, but they don’t have unity. You see how Senegal
play. Nigeria is not here, why? Cameroon is not here, why? You can
have 200 million professionals who play in Chelsea or Barcelona but
if they can’t play together as a team you can’t do anything.”
The model of a stable group of players working with a coach for
several years could be a blueprint as African football struggles to
make a lasting impression on the world stage.
No African team has ever reached the semifinals of the World Cup
and only Ghana reached the knockout stage – eventually losing on
penalties in the quarterfinals – when the tournament was held in
the continent for the first time in 2010.
Zambia has still to qualify for a World Cup – the team will have
to top a difficult group including Ghana to reach a playoff for the
2014 tournament in Brazil – but African Cup glory in the meantime
would vindicate Bwalya’s long-term vision.
”This is payback time,” Katongo said. ”There is a process
which is working and it’s working for the Zambia team. We know each
other. I know where (teammate Rainford) Kalaba wants the ball, how
he runs. He knows my weaknesses, I know his weaknesses, I know his
strong points and this is a good thing. Maybe this time we can
reach the final.”