Ivory Coast await Zambia in Afcon final
With a team loaded with Europe-based talent and on a run of five straight wins without conceding a goal, Ivory Coast are expected to win their second African Cup of Nations title.
Yet Zambia are driven by a strong, compelling mission entering Sunday’s final. They want to honour the memory of their players who died in a plane crash 19 years ago.
Zambia, a two-time losing finalist, are looking for their first major title in the same city where the 25 players and officials lost their lives.
Ivory Coast feature a rugged defense and star-studded attack led by captain Didier Drogba. They are clearly the favourites, but the Zambians’ emotionally charged run has ensured they can’t be ignored at Stade de l’Amitie.
Since arriving in the Gabonese capital, Zambia’s players have paid their respects at the small, nondescript stretch of beach where the ill-fated plane passed over before plunging into the sea. The Zambian squad laid flowers, sang songs and prayed in during a ceremony on the shore.
The players know they are not expected to win, but by beating four-time champion Ghana in the semifinals to make the trip back to Libreville they proved rankings sometimes don’t matter.
“It will be a tough game against Ivory Coast. We are not favourites,” Zambia coach Herve Renard said. “We are very far from Ivory Coast like we were very far from Ghana, but that does not mean anything. I think they have respect for us and we have a lot of respect for them but we want to beat them.”
Ivory Coast, the top-ranked African team, charged to the final, sweeping aside every opponent. They are now one victory shy of a title that has eluded the country for 20 years.
A 3-0 win over co-host Equatorial Guinea in the quarterfinals, before a partisan crowd of 40 000-plus. showed Ivory Coast was worthy of their pre-tournament hype.
Drogba and fellow English Premier League forwards Gervinho and Salomon Kalou have impressed, midfield playmaker Yaya Toure has been quietly efficient and the formidable defense—marshaled by Kolo Toure—has yet to be breached.
Coach Francois Zahoui said his team also has its own inspiration, hoping a long-awaited title for the country will help heal the wounds of last year’s civil war in Ivory Coast.
“When we came here we came with a lot of pressure,” he said. “But we had 23 players who wanted to go to the final. We wanted to take every opponent with as much respect as possible and with the failures of the past. We know we haven’t won yet. We know there’s a big expectation on the part of my team.”