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

Cup.

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

policy.

”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

do.”

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

the final.

”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.”