Chipolopolo Loses on Both Fronts
Harare ‑ Zambia have officially become the team that ruled African football for the shortest time ever and, as they survey the remains of their kingdom, they have a right to feel someone is working against their interests.
Twelve months ago, Chipolopolo were the toast of the continent; defying all the odds with a hugely emotional penalty shootout victory over Cote d’Ivoire to win the Nations Cup for the first time in their history.
That their triumph came in Libreville, the very city where the doomed military plane carrying their national team to a ’94 World Cup qualifier in Senegal took off, for the last time, before coming down moments later to crash in the ocean, killing everyone on board, made this triumph special.
Normally, Zambia would have enjoyed their crown for two years.
But the Confederation of African Football leaders decided to ring the changes and shifted the Nations Cup to odd years, to avoid a counter-attraction with the World Cup, and what was meant to be a two-year reign for Zambia turned into one, unless they successfully defended their crown.
It is never easy to defend the Nations Cup, even after two years, and doing it after just one year, especially with all the emotions that followed Zambia’s triumph, would have been asking for too much.
But that is not the real story.
For some reason, the defending champions were given the worst stadium, among those that were being used at the 2013 Nations Cup finals, and their football never flowed at the Mbombela pitch in Nelspruit.
“We were very happy to come to Mbombela but we are very disappointed with this pitch,” Zambian coach Harve Renard told journalists.
He repeated his sharp criticism of the pitch, which he claimed did not suit the way his team plays, when Zambia returned home last week.
Renard was not the only one critical of the Mbombela playing surface. Togolese captain, Emmanuel Adebayor, also slammed the organisers for hosting matches on such a pitch.
“Once again we are in Africa, the African Cup of Nations is a big tournament for Africa ‑ the whole world is watching this,” Adebayor said.
“You can't play on a pitch like this. Those people that watch the game in Europe, they will be sending SMS to me … asking me, ‘Are you playing in the bush or what?’ It's a disgrace to our continent, we can do better.
“CAF have to sort things out to solve the problem. At the end of the day, we are all African and we have to be honest with ourselves. It's a beautiful stadium but the pitch is not happening.”
But the Mbombela pitch and the early elimination from the 2013 Nations Cup finals won’t be the only things worrying the Zambians and making them feel there are some powerful forces working against them.
Interestingly, Chipolopolo will become the first African champions, in the year preceding the FIFA Confederations Cup, who will not be allowed to represent the continent at the World Cup dress rehearsal.
Everything appeared set for Zambia to make an appearance at the Confederations Cup in Brazil and FIFA were making arrangements for Chipolopolo until the authorities at CAF decided otherwise.
Instead, it is the winner of the 2013 Nations Cup finals that will represent the continent.
It didn’t matter to CAF that the Brazilians, who will be hosting the tournament, needed early confirmation of the nations that will be taking part and, as far back as June last year, FIFA tried to get confirmation, and not clarification, from CAF that Zambia will be there.
“As a matter of curiosity, why won’t you allow the 2012 winners to be there, at least so that we can plan accordingly and quickly?” a FIFA official wrote an email to CAF last year.
“Don’t forget that all our teams for the Confederations Cup are the winners from the various continents’ 2012 tournaments.”
CAF’s reply, via email, on June 30, 2012, said “The winners of the 2013 AFCON South Africa will be the ones to represent CAF and not the winners of the 2012 edition”, advising, for good measure, FIFA to “kindly respect the decision of CAF, who think it is best to produce the current champions of Africa, as are the dictates of the Confederations Cup’s rules”.
Pushed into a corner, in what was clearly a messy domestic affair, FIFA pulled back from the boardroom drama and sent the following e-mail:
“If this would not present a problem for the 2012 winners, and the entire CAF’s ExCo (executive committee) is fine with this, then we will put forward the winners of 2013 as your continent’s rep.”
Renard is right to feel that his boys are being cheated from what clearly belongs to them – a place at the Confederations Cup for the first time in their country’s history.
The Frenchman, who has a good chance of taking Zambia to the World Cup for the first time, said he could not understand the CAF decision and why goalposts were now being shifted.
“To be honest with you, I think that CAF is very happy because Zambia is not going to play the Confederations Cup,'' Renard said after his team crashed out of the Nations Cup at the group stages.
“Because (they think) Zambia is not sexy enough to go to the Confederations … it's the truth.''
It is very unlikely CAF would have elbowed Nigeria or Cote d’Ivoire out of the Confederations Cup in the same way if they had won the Nations Cup last year.
Southern African teams have always felt short-changed, when dealing with CAF, and Zambia will join a long list of nations, from this part of the continent, who have a bone to chew with the game’s continental leaders.
South Africa’s bid to host the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals did not have the official blessings of CAF and some of the game’s leaders even encouraged Morocco to bid, when FIFA said an African team would host in 2010, to try and spite the Rainbow Nation.
Zimbabwe lost the right to host the 2000 Nations Cup finals, on the false excuse that facilities were not ready, when Mali, who hosted two years later, had worse stadiums.