From afar, Matthew Acconciamessa (of US Soccer Daily) is taken by the African Cup of Nations Final
The Stade d’Angondje fell silent for an instant. Pulsing with support throughout the evening, fans grew quiet, drawing the shortest of breaths as Didier Drogba approached the penalty spot in the 70th minute.
A second later, half of the crowd erupted in euphoric celebration and half howled in disbelief, combining for a cacophonous sforzando as the attempt sailed into the Gabonese night. And on an island stood Drogba, the picture of anguish and, for a split second, quiet resignation. His body looked to finally be buckling under the weight of a nation, with old demons racing back into focus.
Would this be 2006 all over again, where a Drogba penalty miss in the final helped seal another empty-handed exit from the Africa Cup of Nations? Would this Drogba-led squad ever win an international trophy, or were they doomed to become one of the most talented also-rans of their time? Why, Didi must have wondered in true Balotelli fashion, why always me?
All the Chelsea striker could do was wince and look painfully down at the patch of turf that helped author another mishap in the spotlight, as if the grass itself was conspiring against him and his teammates in their seemingly endless journey for international hardware.
Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, meanwhile, was the microcosm of his side in that moment, bursting out of goal with an exuberantly cruel celebration right in front of his distraught opponent’s eyes. But he quickly gathered himself, comically (and, once again, cruelly) tried to shake Drogba’s hand, and then went to get the ball to set up for a goal kick. That was Zambia in a nutshell: a team managing emotions in the biggest game of their careers and in their nation’s history, rising to the occasion and befuddling their superstar opposition.
That was also the Ivory Coast in a nutshell: a golden generation of players on the cusp of long-awaited glory, pressing in vain to bring joy to a country that has suffered through much.
The subplots read like a script, an elaborate and seemingly implausible amalgam of storylines that served as grand exposition for the final. Zambia were returning to the scene of their greatest tragedy, the 1993 plane crash outside Libreville that claimed 30 lives and essentially wiped out their national team. That accomplishment alone was thought highly unlikely just weeks prior, as it required Zambia to reach the final simply to get the opportunity to play in Gabon (their first five matches took place in co-host Equatorial Guinea). Yet here they were, the plucky underdogs that managed to top the likes of Ghana and Senegal en route to the final, a run of form that belied their FIFA ranking. Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets) sought from the start to honor those victims, and against the odds they managed to reach the point where they properly could.
On the other side, meanwhile, was a group of players battling the specter of failure. For the likes of Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, and a handful of others, this marked yet another opportunity to finally live up to their status as one of the most talented teams Africa has seen in the last decade. Though stacked with talent, the Elephants had fallen short time and time again come tournament time, failing to deliver a trophy. Beyond their personal hopes and dreams, though, were those of a nation whose 20 million citizens were also looking for a source of joy, pride, and escapism, having been torn apart by recent civil war and domestic strife.
Soccer is described dismissively sometimes as “just a game.” On this day, that trite phrase couldn’t have been further from the truth, as players took to the field to honor the dead, unite their country, fulfill dreams, and write legacies.
Oftentimes, an international final, no matter the subplots it brings in tow, fails to live up to the stage, with negative soccer generating a nervy but not-overly-thrilling product. On this night, though, there was a glorious coalescence of all facets: the stories were matched with riveting on-field play, a beautiful venue, a boisterous crowd, and many memorable moments.
Quite simply, it was a match worthy of a final in every way.
As Drogba- and more than a fan few fans, I’m sure- looked skyward in despair while his penalty attempt entered a low orbit, the match pressed on with its futile but thrilling 120 minute search for a goal that wasn’t without a few close calls.
Zambia signaled its intent early on and answered some questions about their ability to hang with the mighty Elephants, nearly finding the back of the net off of a well-worked corner just 90 seconds into the match.
Later in the opening half, the Ivory Coast producing a sequence that was the perfect microcosm of their generation: a prodigious display of near-flawless attacking soccer that, ultimately, still came up just short.
As the match moved on to extra time, Drogba’s miss still looming, neither team slowed down, with the ball moving end to end in the quest for a winner. And it very nearly came for Zambia by way of the Katongo brothers, with substitute Felix finding captain Christopher at the near post, only for the Fates to agonizingly deny him through the cleat studs of Boubacar Barry and the goal post.
In the end, though, 120 minutes of exciting play failed to produce a single goal, and so, in one more cruel twist, the match moved on to penalties, where we were gifted more memorable moments.
With the tension palpable, players one after one stepped up the spot and hit confident penalties. Even the lone blip in the opening rounds, a penalty stopped by Mweene but called back because he took a step off the line, was followed by a thunderous response. Players from both sides finished clinically, with their shots anthropomorphically laughing in the face of the high-pressure situation as they rippled the back of the net. Hell, even Didier Drogba managed to put his in.
And as time wore on and the penalty spot became more and more chewed up, the temperature seemed to rise in Libreville. Soon, Zambia were faced with the unenviable task of having to answer with a goal or lose.
So naturally, their goalkeeper stepped up to the spot, only to coolly slot it home before sharing a respectful, “it’s been fun” handshake with Boubacar Barry. It was the only logical response in a night filled with madness.
Zambia managed to stave off another sudden death attempt before being faced with a third. As 21 year-old Chisamba Lungu began to walk in from the halfway line, Didier Drogba patted him on the back and said something. Was it a sincere “Good luck, kid”? Was it a sinister “Don’t choke”? Whatever it was, Lungu looked back like a deer in the headlights, with pure trepidation briefly in his eyes.
But, as the Zambians were wont to do on this night, he bottled up that emotion and channeled it into positivity, burying his penalty to keep his country alive. And once his shot hit the back of the net, Lungu looked toward Barry and gave him the same “you can’t see me” celebration with which Mweene taunted Drogba in the 70th minute. Despite the pressure and the caliber of their opponent, Zambia never lost their poise and confidence, even as the stakes rose.
Then the Fates, decidedly bored with their array of twists and turns to that point, decided to take the agony to a new level, with a Kolo Toure miss followed a Drogba-like blast over the bar from Rainford Kalaba. The trophy had been teasingly dangled in front of both teams, but neither could quite reach it. It seemed like we were destined for a 37-round affair that ended with both coaches giving it a go.
But with a new lease on life, the Ivory Coast managed to balk once more, this time with Gervinho’s attempt getting pushed aside by Mweene. One Stophira Sunzu penalty later, Chipolopolo jubilantly raced down the field as the new champions of Africa, while the Elephants felt the weight of failure crash down upon them.
The concurrent scenes of jubilation and despair in Libreville were truly remarkable. Tears flowed down the faces of inconsolable Ivorian stars, while others had a glazed look of gutted disbelief. Zambian players, meanwhile, proudly displayed a banner honoring the ’93 team. It was a moment of some degree of closure for a nation that still mourned those lost on that fateful day.
In one of the more touching moments, coach Herve Renard, a cool Frenchman who guided the Copper Bullets to their historic triumph, carried injured Joseph Musonda from the bench to the end of the field so that he could celebrate with his teammates. And smiling proudly as his fellow countrymen went to accept the trophy was none other than Zambian FA president Kalusha Bwalya: the only player from the ’93 team not on the flight that claimed so many lives.
In every sense of the word, it was special to watch, as the match’s true meaning manifested itself in raw displays of emotion and disbelief on both sides. It was evident to anyone watching that this was far from “just a game.”
Under the lights in Libreville with millions watching, the Fates managed to simultaneously pen a story of great tragedy and a story of great triumph.
Both will be remembered for years to come.