Commentary

Zambia prepares for emotional final

Preview of African Cup of Nations final between Zambia and Ivory Coast

Updated: February 9, 2012, 3:47 PM ET
By Michael Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Zambia's soccer team pay their respectsAP Photo/Francois MoriZambia pays its respects for the ill-fated flight on April 27, 1993, that killed the entire Zambian team as it prepares for the ACoN final against Ivory Coast.

An international final is a mere game of football, yet there is always a wider narrative.

The World Cup final of 2010, for example, was a fantastic tale because the Netherlands, the most legendary football nation never to win a World Cup, failed to do so again. And it was defeated by a country that had borrowed so many of the Dutch's Total Football principles, transferred through Johan Cruyff, through Barcelona. It was a cruel irony.

African football's tales are not always about football. Political unrest and even revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Sudan could have been the background of the African Cup of Nations final. But none of those countries will contest the final in Gabon on Sunday. Egypt didn't even qualify despite having won the past three tournaments.

The story here is not a football story, and it isn't a political one, either. It's a human story. Zambia is the surprise finalist, having beaten Ghana 1-0 on Wednesday in a tight semifinal. The most famous footballing tale involving Zambia is one of tragedy: On April 27, 1993, a plane carrying the Zambian national football team crashed and killed all 18 players on board, plus the coach and backroom staff. Those 18 players made up nearly the entire squad, which was widely regarded as the best the country had ever seen. Kalusha Bwalya, at that time the captain and star player, was not on the flight and is now the president of the country's football federation, and he deserves much of the credit for the team's progress to the final.

Engine problems, a faulty warning light and pilot fatigue were all blamed for the crash, as was the old airplane, which had prompted concerns before. The plane came down 500 meters from land, just minutes after taking off from Libreville. And, as fate would have it, of all the 60-odd African capitals, it is Libreville that will host Sunday's final.

"There's something written that we have to go to play to honor the memories of the Zambia national team that died in 1993," coach Herve Renard said. "It was catastrophic for the nation. The 12 million people of Zambia are waiting for us to go back to Libreville. Immediately after we arrive, we will go to the place. We just have to think of them and play for them and play for Zambia because it's a fantastic country.

[+] EnlargeZambia Soccer
Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty ImagesZambia celebrated a 1-0 win over Ghana in the semifinals to book its spot in the championship match against the Ivory Coast.

"Before the African Cup, we were in camp in Johannesburg," Renard added, "talking about the only possibility to go back to Gabon was the final. Not before. That means it's fantastic to be there."

There is a further coincidence -- the ill-fated plane had been bound for Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, the other competing nation in Sunday's final.

And then, there is the mere game of football. Zambia will start as the neutral's choice, yet also a huge underdog. The Ivory Coast clearly has the best squad in the tournament, and although it has yet to produce particularly scintillating football, that's not a big concern for the players. This "golden generation" of Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora and the Toure brothers still has yet to taste international success. To describe this as the players' "last chance" seems misleading -- with the Africa Cup of Nations switching from even- to odd-numbered years, we're only 12 months from the next tournament, and these stars probably will be here again. But if not their last chance, it's certainly their best chance -- in the final against a much weaker nation, this is the Ivory Coast's trophy to lose.

Coach Francois Zahoui has brought in a pragmatic style of play, and the side has been very reliant upon opposition mistakes and set-pieces for goals. "We are more organized; we are not conceding goals, and that's the basis of football," says Salomon Kalou. The goalkeeper and center backs have remained the same throughout the tournament, but Zahoui has been keen to rotate elsewhere, taking advantage of his large squad and making sure players are both fresh and motivated to try to keep their place. Drogba is the only other player to have started all five games. This will mean some tricky decisions ahead of the final, particularly at full back and on the wing.

[+] EnlargeYaya Toure
Pius Utomi Ekpei/Getty ImagesThe key to the Ivory Coast's performance will be the position of Yaya Toure.

The key to the team's performance is the positioning of Yaya Toure. A brilliantly complete player who is able to play as a holder, a box-to-box player or an attacking midfielder, too often Toure has been used deep in midfield. Some might argue that that is his best role -- it's where he was used at Barcelona at his peak -- but it's not where the Ivory Coast needs him. It has Zokora and Cheick Tiote to hold, and Toure is better used high up the pitch in support of the front three, where he can drive at the opposition defense, as he did in the second half of the quarterfinal and in the semifinal.

Renard's selection has been more consistent, although he does have a couple of decisions to make. The peculiarity of the semifinal win over Ghana was that Renard won the game with two substitutions but those two substitutions simply moved Zambia back to the side that had started the quarterfinal, the 3-0 win over Sudan. Was it tactical genius from Renard, or was he just correcting his initial selection errors?

That question is now irrelevant, but Renard surely must start Emmanuel Mayuka, the man who played up front for the first four games but was then dropped for the semifinal. He came off the bench to score the winner, and tricky left winger Chisamba Lungu provided drive down the left after coming on, a change that allowed scheming midfielder Isaac Chansa back into his favored central midfield role.

Renard might go more defensive against the power of the Ivorians, however. His side generally sits back before playing direct balls forward and bringing the wide players off the flanks to combine with the forwards in a 4-2-2-2 system. Zambia doesn't throw many players forward at once, meaning the Ivory Coast will be unlikely to replicate Gervinho's winner against Mali, when he drove from the halfway line to the penalty box without a challenge.

The game is likely to be tight and tense, with neither side committing numbers forward and both defending deep. It might not be a fantastic final, but, one way or another, it will be a fantastic story.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.