Can Zambia's copper bullets hit CAN bullseye?
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Defending champions Zambia are the favourites ahead of their match against Ethiopia while Nigeria is taking its confrontaion with Burkina Faso very seriously
Zambia start the defence of their Africa Cup of Nations crown in determined mood.
The team – nicknamed the Chipolopolo – Copper Bullets – shot down 'the Elephants' of Côte d’Ivoire in the final in Libreville last February.
It was a victory soaked in emotion. Libreville was the scene 19 years earlier of a plane crash in which 18 Zambian players were killed as they travelled to represent their country.
That crop of stars was widely tipped to race away with the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations and also qualify for the World Cup.
But the dreams were lost in the Atlantic Ocean and subsequent sides appeared overwhelmed by lachrymal comparisons.
Current coach Hervé Renard says his players need to win again to establish themselves as a continental powerhouse. They also need to undermine the sceptics who claim that the penalty shoot-out was a spiritually orchestrated psyche-out session.
Glory on the 18th penalty does have an otherworldly ring though.
But back here on planet earth, the star of the last show is displaying an addictive intensity. “As a player who’s tasted the sweet, it’s time to taste it again,” said skipper Christopher Katongo on the eve of the game against Ethiopia.
Brows knitted and eyes firmly fixed on reporters at his team's hotel in Nelspruit, he added: “We know what Africa Cups can do in our lives so that’s a great motivation. So we’re definitely going to try to defend it because it has changed so much for us individually. The motivation is there.”
The Ethiopians reached the last 16 after a play-off win over last year’s quarter finalists Sudan.
Their sole crown was in 1962 and they haven’t been to the finals since 1982. Under coach Sewnet Bishaw there have been some impressive results. Central African Republic were beaten in a qualifier for next year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Though Zambia are expected to win the game, Renard said he’d be serious about the team’s first 90 minutes as defending champions.
“Our focus has been good for the game. No one was expecting Cape Verde to draw 0-0 with South Africa in the opening game. But when you know that Cape Verde beat Cameroon to get to the last 16, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise.
“This is the Africa Cup of Nations 2013. We mustn’t underrate anybody. I saw the video of Ethiopia"s 1-1 draw with South Africa in Rustenburg last year. The Ethiopians moved the ball well. They’re not frightened when they’ve got the ball. They’re a good football team and we have to be careful about the game.”
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi is adopting a similar stance for his team’s opening game against Burkina Faso.
“Burkina Faso have good players," said the 41-year-old. "We can’t take them lightly because they’re all good football players. I had the opportunity when I was coaching Mali to play against them in a friendly game in France and they were a good team. And seeing what happened at the last Africa Cup of Nations when so-called small teams like Guinea and Gabon did well – you have to be on your guard.”
Keshi, who played in the 1994 Nigeria side which claimed the Cup of Nations trophy, seems to have undermined his chances by opting for a crop of youngsters.
He’s dispensed with old heads such as strikers Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins. Keshi says that even though some of the players are untested at this level, they have experience in their clubs.
He’s still got a backbone of seasoned campaigners. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama is there, so too the Chelsea midfielder Jon Obi Mikel. The team will be led by 32-year-old Joseph Yobo who’s been enjoying good form in England with high-flying Everton.
“There’s always been a big responsibility on me to push the team," Yobo said. "As the coach says this is a young team with many in the last 16 for the first time. But they’ve been playing in the qualifiers so they’re not totally raw.
“But now is the time for everyone to stand up to the responsibility. Hopefully we can get the three points and build on that confidence.”
Nigerian campaigns are famous for their acrimony. So many gifted teams have been rent by factions and fictions.
Keshi has been quick to embrace that history. “Look there’ll always be disagreements in a team. That’s the way it is in football. I’m just assembling some good football players who should be given the opportunity to showcase what they can do.
“I don't know if I'm taking a risk. Everything in life is a risk and you do have to take some. At the moment I just know I’m trying to assemble a team for Nigeria for the future and one that Nigerians can be proud of.”
But will he be given time to channel that talent in the same way as his Zambian counterpart Renard?
And if results don’t flow, will his football association executives bow to an impatient public and hunt the classic quick fix. Yet those FA bigwigs should know by now that hasty change has rarely led to success.
Smaller football associations without the pomp and circumstance of former glories appear to have mastered the concept and are now tangible barriers to the resurrection of the likes of Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon.
In Angola in 2010 Zambia v Nigeria was a quarter final clash of likely lads against the experienced men.
Three years later their Group C game will be a complete inversion. Before that meeting, however, they have to put Ethiopia and Burkina Faso in their places.
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