By Robson Sharuko
Harare – Twenty seven years after Kalusha Bwalya announced his arrival on the big stage, with an unforgettable hat-trick in a famous 4-0 thrashing of Italy in South Korea, there is a growing feeling in.
Zambia that they have a team that will make it to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, next year.
The legendary Bwalya, considered by many as the greatest Zambian footballer of all-time, plundered a superb hattrick as he inspired his team to a grand victory over the Italians in the South Korean city of
Gwanju, on September 19, 1988, at the Olympic Games in South Korea.
In three group games, Bwalya was the outstanding player for the Zambians, winning two, including a 4-0 whipping of Guatemala, and drawing the other match, 2-2 against Iraq, as the Southern Africans finished top of their group, with their talisman scoring five times.
Although Zambia crashed to a 0-4 defeat, in the quarter-finals, their hammering of Italy, and Bwalya’s outstanding performance that day, were hailed around the world and the inspirational forward was named
the 1988 African Footballer of the Year by France Football magazine.
There are many who believe that the Zambians’ excellent performance at the 1988 Olympic Games heralded a new era for African football with a
star-studded Nigerian team winning gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, United States, and Cameroon matching that feat four years later in Sydney, Australia.
Now, 27 years to the year Kalusha and his troops set the stage alight in South Korea, and blazed a trail for African football at the Olympic Games, there is a feeling in Zambia that they have a team that can
qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
On Monday the Zambians, who eliminated West African giants Cote d’Ivoire to make it to the final eight-team qualifying tournament in
Senegal, were drawn in a group that features the hosts, bitter Southern African rivals South Africa and Tunisia who were part of the African trio at the 1998 Olympic Games.
The final qualifying tournament in Senegal will be held between November 28 and December 12 in Dakar and Mbour.
The Zambians have not been back to the Olympic Games since Kalusha and his supermen dazzled the world in 1988 and they believe they will be among the top three teams in Senegal, who will qualify for Rio next year, while the country that finishes fourth will battle in a play-off against an Asian side.
“It’s been a long time and we hope the boys know that. It is important that we prepare from now until December so that when we go to Senegal and do the right thing hoping luck will be on our side this time,”
Kalusha, who is now the Football Association of Zambia president, told journalists in his country.
“We hope to God that Zambia can raise the flag in Rio.”
“The boys showed great cause playing a dangerous team like Ivory Coast and the team looked solid. The boys have ambition and working hard to put the country on the world map.”
And coach, Fighton Simukonda, also believes they have what it takes to go all the way to Rio.
“We have waited for so long and this is our chance to go to the Olympics,” Simukonda said.
His captain, Toaster Nsabata, is also bullish about their chances of ending a quarter-of-a-century wait for a return to the Olympic Games.
“We are done with the Africa Championship qualifiers and our next target is the Olympics. It wasn’t easy to reach this far but we are determined to go further,” the goalkeeper and skipper told the Lusaka Voice.
“We will prepare well for Senegal and I will make sure we perform well and qualify to the Olympics.”
And there is a number of former national team coaches are also backing the team to go all the way for a splash in the Rio sunshine next year.
Dickson Makwaza was part of the backroom staff at the Olympic Games in 1988, as an assistant coach to the late Samuel “Zoom” Ndhlovu, and knows what it takes for a team to make it to a tournament of this magnitude.
“After we beat Italy, our next opponent, Germany, went to ask their friends what was so special about Zambia and they gave them all the information they needed and which players to get hold of and that’s how we lost to Germany,” he said.
“They say football has gone scientific but I don’t agree to that. What is involved are preparations and all we need are good preparations and a well-organised technical bench.”
Southern African football fans will be hoping that both the Zambians and the South Africans, who are carrying the region’s hopes, make it to Rio de Janeiro next year.
The South Africans were impressive as they booked their ticket to Senegal with a crushing 4-1 aggregate win over neighbours Zimbabwe, with highly-rated Mamelodi Sundowns’ forward, Keegan Dolly, the destroyer-in-chief.
We have waited for so long and this is our chance to go to the Olympics.” – Fighton Simukonda
“Any draw was always going to be difficult. We have played Tunisia recently in friendly matches and surely they will come at us guns blazing,” South Africa Under-23 coach, Owen da Gama, said as he reflected on the draw.
“So, it is a difficult draw but, at least, now we understand what we are up against.
“We have seen Zambia play, so it’s not the worst group that we have been drawn in because it could have been worse.
“Everything will depend on our preparations which need to be spot on. The onus is on us to go and work hard and ensure that we are ready for
the tournament. We need to sit down with all stakeholders including
clubs to make sure we don’t leave anything to chance going forward.”