from ARNOLD MULENGA in Lusaka, Zambia
LUSAKA – AFTER an unprecedented clean sweep of the Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) men’s tournaments on offer this year, Zambia is retracing its steps to the lofty heights as a dominant force in regional and continental football.
It has been a brilliant year for the Zambians, whose junior and senior men’s national teams’ have deservedly emerged the cream of the crop in the region.
The latest success came this past weekend as the Under-20 side was crowned champions having dismantled South Africa 3-0 in the final played at a packed Nkoloma Stadium in the capital Lusaka.
Young Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets), in the process, regained the trophy they last won in 2016.
Patrick Gondwe won the Player of the Tournament for 2019.
It completes a remarkable year for the football-mad country that was also crowned the senior COSAFA Cup and Under-17 tournament champions.
The Under-17s were installed champions in October after a 2-0 victory over Mozambique in Malawi. Moses Mulenga was named Player of the Tournament.
Coach Oswald Mutapa becomes the first coach to lift two COSAFA titles in a single year after he led the two junior teams to their respective championships. His stock is rising steadily with calls for him to be promoted to the senior side.
The senior side, meanwhile, secured gold after a 1-0 victory against Malawi in South Africa in June.
Zambia were also runners-up in the women’s senior and Under-20 championships, and finished third in the women’s Under-17 age-group to mark a superb year.
The senior men’s team has also qualified for the 2020 African Nations Championship (CHAN) to be held in Cameroon.
Dr Edgar Chagwa Lungu, the President of the Republic, heaped praise on the national teams following their exploits.
“Football is a uniting force, especially when we win. So, let us have more of such victories,” the president said.
Following the purple patch by the respective teams, the onus is on the senior men’s side to shake off its disastrous start to the qualifiers of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2021 tournament scheduled for Cameroon.
In Group H that includes fellow Southern Africans-Botswana and Zimbabwe- as well as leaders Algeria, Zambia are bottom without points from two matches.
“It is my hope that the senior team will also qualify to the 2021 AFCON and the 2022 World Cup,” Emmanuel Mulenga, the Minister of Youth, Sport and Child Development, recently said.
Mulenga reaffirmed the government’s commitment to supporting football and other sports disciplines in the country.
Prior to this year, football had offered little to celebrate for the nation of 18 million people.
The decline has been spectacular since the senior men’s team was crowned champions of the AFCON co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2012.
It bowed out at the group stages in the two following tournaments in South Africa (2013) and Equatorial Guinea (2015).
The side did not qualify for the 2017 and 2019 campaigns in Gabon and Egypt respectively.
“Football is a sport that unifies the nation and in this regard we cannot afford to have our football standards declining,” Mulenga said.
Football is not only the most popular sport in Zambia but is one of the most emotive issues.
Thirty people, including 18 players, on board were killed in a crash after their plane took off in Gabon following a World Cup qualifier away to Senegal.
The crash wiped out one of the continent’s most promising national football teams.
At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul they famously thrashed Italy 4–0. At the time of the crash, they had their eyes on the 1994 AFCON. A team picked after the disaster narrowly lost the final to Nigeria and missed qualification for the World Cup by a whisker.
– CAJ News