Junior Chipolopolo: Zambians hope of a golden era of success
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – THEY first conquered the region, then the continent and, after topping their group at the 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals in South Korea – capped by a stunning come-from-behind 4-2 victory over Iran – there is a feeling Zambia has just unearthed a golden generation of teenage footballers.
The Zambians, who made history in February when they became the first group from their country to be crowned African Under-20 champions in a tournament they hosted and dominated with a streak of ruthlessness, have been making waves wherever they have gone.
And while their South African counterparts fell in the group stages at the 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals, after losing two and drawing one of their three group matches, the Zambians emerged as the best side in their group to reach the Round of 16.
The Amajita of South Africa first crashed to a 1-2 defeat at the hands of Japan and then fell 0-2 to Italy before a goalless draw against Uruguay in their final group game saw them crashing out of the tournament.
But, the Junior Chipolopolo of Zambia, who in the past few months have won the COSAFA Cup and the AFCON trophy for the Under-20 teams, lived to fight another day after topping their group following a 2-1 win over Portugal and a 4-2 victory over Iran.
The remarkable win over Iran displayed the character of a team that has grown in leaps and bounds and which has captured the imagination of their country, including being honoured by President Edgar Lungu, amid a wave of hope that these teenage footballers could one day win another Nations Cup trophy for Zambia.
The Zambians have only been crowned champions of Africa once, in 2012 when they refused to be buried by the emotions of playing in a country, Gabon, where a generation of the country’s finest footballers died in a plane crash in 1993 and, somehow, holding their nerve to beat favourites Cote d’Ivoire in a penalty shootout.
Eighteen years earlier, the Zambians had come short in the AFCON final when a team, built from the ashes of that disaster and led by Kalusha Bwalya, fell 1-2 to Nigeria with their brave campaign, in the face of the disaster, charming the world.
The Zambians had also reached the final of the 1974 in Egypt where they ran into an ambush set by a brilliant Congolese side, led by legendary forward Ndaye Mulamba, who scored four goals in a final that had to be replayed.
The first match ended in a 2-2 draw, with Mulamba scoring both the Congolese goals, while the replay ended 2-0 in favour of the Congolese, again with Mulamba scoring the two goals.
While back home in Zambian expectations are exploding with each passing game, amid hopes among the fans that they have mined a golden generation of footballers, it appears the Junior Chipolopolo players just want to enjoy themselves and leave a mark.
After all, the last Zambian team to reach the Round 16 of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup provided some of the players – like Stophilla Sunzu and Emmanuel Mayuka – who would then go on to play key roles in the country’s Nations Cup success.
“This is one of the best feelings I have ever had in my life,’’ midfielder Emmanuel Banda, who scored one and provided an assist in the match, told FIFA.com after their come-from-behind victory over Iran.
“Coming back from 2-0 down in a game like this is really amazing. We never lost hope. Despite being behind, we knew we would come back.
“When the team is in motion, everything just moves on its own. It all came together and that brought us the equalising goal.”
Their regional counterparts, South Africa, didn’t live to fight beyond the group stages after their two losses against Japan and Italy and a goalless draw against Uruguay.
The appearance of both Zambia and South Africa in South Korea has been hailed by some in Southern Africa as a reflection of the shift in the balance of power on the continent which, until recently, was being dominated by Western and Northern African nations.
After all, the two CAF inter-club tournaments – the CAF Champions League and the Confederation Cup – are in the hands of SADC teams with South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns being the reigning African champions while Congolese giants TP Mazembe are the holders of the Confederation Cup.
But, despite their early elimination, Amajita skipper Repo Malepe said playing at the World Cup was a big deal.
“Being at a World Cup is a big thing,” Malepe told FIFA.com. “We’re learning. It’s not all about winning. We’re still young. We have to learn and get the experience. We are very fortunate and honoured to be here. For me, we still have to go back to work.
“Playing in these kinds of tournaments is very great exposure for us as youngsters, because there are many scouts, many teams are looking for U-20 players because that’s where maturity starts.
“I believe we have learned a lot in this tournament. I’m looking forward so that our fellow U-20s will qualify and they can experience the very same feeling we experienced. For me, I still have hope, I still believe that we can make it to the next round.”
Zambia Under-20 national team statistics
since December 2016
7 December 2016 – Zimbabwe 1–5 Zambia
11 December 2016 – Zambia 3–0 Malawi
13 December 2016 – Zambia 2–0 Mozambique
14 December 2016 – Zambia 2-1 DR Congo
16 December 2016 – Zambia 2 – South Africa 1
31 January 2017 – Zambia 1-0 Tenerife
2 February 2017 – Zambia 1-0 Basel
8th February 2017 – Zambia U20 1-3 Barcelona youth team
12th February 2017 – Zambia 2-1 South Africa
26 February 2017 – Zambia 1–0 Guinea
1 March 2017 – Mali 1–6 Zambia
4 March 2017 – Zambia 3–1 Egypt
8 March 2017 – Zambia 1–0 (a.e.t.) South Africa
12 March 2017 – Zambia 2–0 Senegal
25th Match 2017 – Zambia 2-0 Ecuador
29 March 2017 – South Korea 4-1 Zambia
Zambia 4-1 Hondurus
Red Arrows 3-1 Zambia
Lusaka Dynamos 2-2 Zambia
Zambia 2-0 Lusaka Dynamos
Tenerife 0-3 Zambia
Marino 2-2 Zambia
Las Palmas 0-4 Zambia
Seleções de Portugal 1-2 Zambia
Iran 2-4 Zambia
Costa Rica 1-0 Zambia
Games played 26; Games won 20; Games drawn 2; Games lost 4; Goals scored 59; Goals conceded 25; Clean sheets 10 – statistics compiled by Aaron Mubanga Jr