Burying the ghost of AFCON

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE-AFTER a doomed 2017 Nations Cup qualifying campaign, which cost the job of one coach and left another gaffer just hanging onto his post, Southern Africa’s football heavyweights, Zambia and South Africa, can banish that nightmare with success in the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup that enter the home stretch this weekend.

Chipolopolo sacked coach George “Chicken” Lwandamina after they failed to qualify for the 2017 AFCON finals, surprisingly beaten in their group by continental football lightweights Guinea Bissau who finished four points clear of the Zambians as the West Africans qualified for their first Nations Cup showcase.

With a population of about 1,7 million, Guinea Bissau is one of the smallest nations, in terms of population, to qualify for the Nations Cup finals and their adventure has been powered, in recent years, by the country’s football authorities’ decision to draft Portuguese-based professionals with links to the West African nation who have helped turn things around.

Two of those expatriates, French-born Frederic Mendy, who once won the Golden Boot in Singapore and Toni Silva, who plays for the junior side of Portuguese giants Benfica, were on target in their first international for Guinea Bissau when the West Africans beat Zambia 3-2 in the defining game of the qualifiers.

Zambia’s protests that Guinea Bissau should be disqualified because goalkeeper Papa Mbassa Mbaye had previously played for Senegal were dismissed by CAF paving the way for the West African nation to book its date with the continent’s football heavyweights in Gabon where, on the strength of their performances in the qualifiers, are unlikely to be punching boys.

Guinea Bissau are one of the world’s 10 poorest countries and their victory over Zambia was made even more remarkable by the fact that, for three days leading to that match, their players refused to train as they demanded dues owed to them by their football leaders from previous matches in the qualifiers.

Zambia’s disastrous Nations Cup campaign means they will not return to Gabon where – just four years after they powered to a hugely emotional success story – their finest hour coming in Libreville, a city that until then represented their darkest hour when a plane crash wiped a generation of Chipolopolo’s finest footballers in 1993.

Chipolopolo can bury memories of that failed continental campaign when they host West African powerhouse Nigeria – who are also licking their wounds after their 2017 Nations Cup doomed campaign – in the first of their 2018 World Cup group qualifiers at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola this weekend.

The Zambians are in what has been termed the Group of Death which also features favourites Algeria, powered by the goal-scoring magic of Leicester City striker Islam Slimani who has scored four goals in the World Cup campaign so far, and the unpredictable Cameroonians.

The Zambians are looking for a feel-good story to come out of their national game after ZESCO United’s courageous campaign in the 2016 CAF Champions League was ended in the semi-finals by South African moneybags Mamelodi Sundowns.

New coach Wedson Nyirenda dropped veteran forward Christopher Katongo, the skipper who guided Chipolopolo to their Nations Cup success in Gabon in 2012, for the date against the Super Eagles.

“We are trying to give everyone a chance to showcase their talent, and like I said earlier, we are doing two phases at one time: that is to prepare the team for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, while we are also rebuilding the team,” Nyirenda told local media.

“We need to formulate and work hard to build a team that will stand the test of time.”

Goalkeeper Jacob Banda, one of the stars who helped ZESCO United reach the semi-finals of the CAF Champions League, said Chipolopolo had a good chance of beating the Super Eagles.

“The morale is very high and the team is focused on the Nigeria game. It’s a very crucial game and I believe we have a team to overcome Nigeria.

“What matters will be our preparations, if we prepared well, then nothing will be difficult for us.”

Nigeria’s preparations have, as has become common with the Super Eagles, been plagued by challenges and only last week the cash-strapped Nigeria Football Federation were forced to issue a statement to douse the flames of raging media speculation that they would not be able to send the team to Zambia.

The Super Eagles, winners of the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa, have now failed to qualify for two straight AFCON Cup finals despite having a galaxy of world-class football stars who include Victor Moses, enjoying a new lease of life at English Premiership giants Chelsea, and the highly-rated Arsenal midfielder Alex Iwobi.

Last week reports emerged that coach Gernot Rohr was stranded in Germany while some players based in Europe had refused take their scheduled flights, booked by the NFF, because they had been booked to fly economy class.

Bafana Bafana also failed to qualify for the 2017 Nations Cup finals and reports claimed that coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba was set to be fired but he managed to hang on to his job and will be in charge when they plunge into a very difficult assignment against Burkina Faso this weekend.

South Africa are the only Southern African nation in Group D where they find themselves surrounded by West African tricky customers – Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and Senegal who were impressive in the 2017 Nations Cup qualifiers.

“Anything other than a win in Burkina Faso will have us playing catch up and it is never an easy task for any country,” Mashaba said, surveying the challenge ahead.

“We must also ensure that we win our home games as anything less will not be enough to get us to Russia.

“We know we are carrying the hopes of the entire nation as we embark on these qualifiers, which go hand in hand with pressure.”

“After the disappointment of not making it to the 2017 AFCON in Gabon, we cannot afford to miss this one. I’m very positive. But we are feeling very positive about the mission ahead. We have tweaked the team a bit to give it some freshness and we are confident we will do well.”