Zambia’s U-20 World Cup adventure ends

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE – TWENTY NINE years after Zambia announced its arrival on the world stage with a stunning 4-0 demolition of Italy, the football gods scripted a perfect revenge mission for the Europeans, in the same country where they suffered the ultimate humiliation, as Africa’s hopes at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup were shattered on Monday.

On September 19 1988, Kalusha Bwalya scored a hattrick, with goals in the 40th, 55th and 90th minutes, in a one-man demolition of Italy at the Gwangju Mudeung Stadium in Gwangju to inspire Zambia to a 4-0 destruction of the Azzurri in a group match at the ’88 Olympic Games in South Korea.

That Italian destruction, in which Johnson Bwalya scored the other goal, made the world stop and take notice of Zambia and Kalusha would then go on to carve a successful career for himself at Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven and also play in Mexico while providing the inspiration for his country’s miraculous run to the final of the 1994 African Cup of Nations final where they lost to Nigeria.

For the Zambians to go the distance in the biggest football festival on the continent, a few months after 18 of their best players – including Derby Mankinka who had also starred in that ’88 Olympics adventure – perished in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon, was hailed as one of football’s enduring miracles.

Five years ago, the Zambians returned to Gabon, the scene of their greatest sporting tragedy, and – as fate would script it – they wrote their finest sporting story when Chipolopolo defeated favourite Cote d’Ivoire in a penalty shootout drama to be crowned African champions for the first time in their history.

When the Junior Chipoplopolo qualified for the 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea, the very country that had provided the setting for Kalusha and his teammates to write that miracle tale against Italy in 1988, those who believe in fate playing a hand in all this went into overdrive.

And, for good reason too.

After all, the Zambian Under-20 side had not only captured the imagination of the nation by becoming the first team to win the CAF Under-20 Nations Cup, in style, but – in Fashion Sakala, Patson Daka and Emmnuel Banda – the team had an explosive strike force that many said reminded them of the ’88 squad led by Kalusha.

Junior Chipolopolo coach Beston Chambeshi provided the link between the Class of 2017 and the Class of ’88, having been part of that team and featuring in the 4-0 thrashing of Guatemala in the final group game for the Zambians that powered them to top of the group.

Chambeshi still remembers that adventure back in ’88 which ended in the second round when the Zambians slumped to a 0-4 defeat at the hands of a German side inspired by Jurgen Klinsmann.

“It was marvellous. Playing teams like Germany, who had great players like (Jurgen) Klinsmann, as well as facing the likes of Iraq and Italy,” Chambeshi told FIFA.com.

“It wasn’t easy but, at that time, we had a strong team. We played as a united group, just as the boys are doing now.”

And, just like in ’88, the Zambians topped their group at the 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, with their free-flowing attacking football catching the eye while their never-say-die spirit saw them overhaul a 0-2 deficit against Iran to eventually run out 4-2 winners.

Just like in ’88, their first knockout game was against the Germans and – unlike back then – the Zambians emerged triumphant with a 4-3 victory in a seven-goal thriller.

“It’s a Zambian news story to see a team get this far,” Chambeshi told FIFA.com. “Football is about making history, it is about leaving your name. (But) there is no pressure now, they’re just enjoying their game.

“In football it’s only once in a while when you find yourself in this stage. They’re young boys, so to have a ‘father’ like me telling them the truth about soccer, how to enjoy soccer and that things are in their own hands (helps).

“This is football. Records are made and records are broken. This is just a stepping stone and in a few years we can do even better for Zambia and Africa – (the players) have that zeal.’’

But, on Monday at the Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea, the Zambian adventure ended and their quest to become only the second African country to become FIFA Under-20 World Champions was stopped at the quarter-final stage by the Italians.

And, this time, it was the Italians who had the opportunity to smile as they reached the semi-finals of the tournament for the first time in their history.

The Zambians were two minutes away from booking a semi-final showdown against England after Sakala scored his fourth goal of the tournament, with six minutes of regulation time left, to put his country into a 2-1 lead.

Daka had thrust the Zambians into an early lead only for the Italians to hit back with an equaliser.

Even though the Italians were reduced to 10-man, after Guiseppe Pezzella was sent off and a penalty which had been given to the Zambians was overturned after a video review, the Azzurri gave as much as they got and equalized, for the second time on the day, with two minutes remaining and force the game into extra-time.

And, in the 110th minute, Luca Vido scored the decisive goal that knocked out the brave Zambians.

They might have fallen shot, ultimately, but with 12 goals in the bag, the best attack at the tournament which had 23 shots blocked and another 21 shots saved with 53 gong off target, the Zambians have every reason to feel – just like the Class of ’88 – they made a huge impression not only in their country but around the world.

Sakala was the top scorer for his country with four goals in the 492 minutes he was on the field while Daka scored twice.

Back in ’88, Kalusha scored six goals to finish as the second best goalscorer at the Olympics with Brazilian legend Romario, who would inspired his country to the World Cup in 1994, taking the Golden Boot with seven goals.

Another Brazilian, Bebeto, scored two goals in that tournament while Nigerian forward Rashid Yekin scored once.

That tournament unleashed a number of players who would make a huge impression in the world and there is no doubt that, after their heroics in South Korea in the past two weeks, a number of Zambian stars are on the path to making big names for themselves in world football.

June 2017
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