Spare a thought for Zambia
Harare – As eight teams slug it out at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil – in the usual World Cup dress rehearsal – it will bring back a feeling of betrayal among millions of Zambians who feel they were cheated of a place at this showcase.
Four months have now passed since Zambian coach Herve Renard claimed this Copper Bullets were being denied a place at the Confederations Cup because CAF feel they are not sexy enough for such a global football festival.
While the passing months have helped to cool down the emotions, the explosion into life of the tournament in Brazil will bring back a flood of bitter memories of what might have been had the CAF leaders not changed the rules at the last minute.
Those changes mean Nigeria, who won their first Nations Cup title in 19 years by emerging triumphant in South Africa in February, are representing Africa at the Confederations Cup.
Nigeria will get their tourney underway with a date against lightweights Tahiti in Belo Horizonte on June 17 – having played a 2014 World Cup qualifier in Namibia just three days earlier.
Tahiti are making their debut appearance at the Confederations tourney after shocking everyone when they won the Oceania Cup. Naturally, they are expected to be the punching bags at the tournament.
The Pacific islanders have just 146 football clubs in their country and 11 200 registered players among the 245 405 inhabitants of the nation. Football is the most popular sport in Tahiti though the islanders did not become part of the global FIFA family until 1990.
While the Super Eagles’ first match will be relatively easy, their second tie will be a tough one against South American powerhouse Uruguay, who boast the potent attack of Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez.
The Nigerians will then complete their group programme with a tough date against world and European champions Spain.
For Chipolopolo fans, every ball that will be kicked by Steve Keshi’s men will be a painful reminder of what might have been for their football heroes.
Ordinarily, Zambia would have been in Brazil after having won AFCON 2012.
They were Africa’s recognised representatives at the time the confirmation window – provided by FIFA for all confederations to put forward their champions for the 2013 Confederations Cup – closed.
AFCON 2013 wasn’t part of the CAF programme until the leaders of the game on the continent decided to shift their tournament to an odd year.
FIFA officials even wondered why CAF appeared reluctant to confirm Zambia as Africa’s representatives.
In correspondence leaked to the media, FIFA said: “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?
“Don’t forget that all our teams for the Confederations Cup are the winners from the various continents’ 2012 tournaments.”
But CAF were adamant that only winners of the 2013 Nations Cup finals would go to Brazil and in their reply asked 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”.
Chipolopolo, though, can make up for that disappointment of being denied a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup by booking an historic appearance at a maiden FIFA World Cup in Brazil next year.
The Zambians remain on course to qualify for Brazil after recovering from the setback of two dropped points in Lesotho by demolishing the same opponents 4-0 last weekend.
“The players showed a lot of determination,” Renard told FIFA.com.
“We had to believe in ourselves, and I told them don’t disappoint your fans.”
Four months ago, Renard was livid when he learnt that his team would not be playing at the 2013 Confederations Cup and he tore into the CAF leadership and was fined US$10 000, though he later apologised for his remarks.
“CAF are very happy that Zambia are not going to the Confederations Cup, they think we are not sexy or famous enough to represent Africa – that's the truth,” said the Frenchman.
“It would be fairer if the winner between the 2012 Nations Cup champions and the 2013 winners went.
“But it never entered their thinking – CAF don't want us to go. They made their decision, and it is the 2013 Cup winners who will represent Africa, not us.”
But priorities have since shifted for Renard and it’s a World Cup place that he wants.
His team have 10 points from four games and could extend it to 13 points should they, as is largely expected, beat Sudan at home this weekend.
Chipolopolo have a one-point lead over Ghana, who travel to Maseru for a date against Lesotho, but the deciding match – unless something shocking happens this weekend – will be in Ghana when the two top teams meet on September 6.
The Ghanaians were impressive in their 3-1 away win over Sudan last weekend, with striker Asamoah Gyan becoming the all-time leading scorer for the Black Stars with 34 goals after a double strike.
Interestingly, Zambia were well-beaten in Sudan. But that result was overturned after Sudan were found to have used an ineligible player and Chipolopolo were awarded the match on a 3-0 scoreline.
Zambia are one of two Southern African nations with a big chance of making it to Brazil 2014.
The other are a resurgent Bafana Bafana who powered to a 3-0 victory over Central African Republic at a neutral venue in Cameroon.