Photo source: Truly Zambian

The story of the weekend goes to Zambia: the once written-off underdog of African football – the Chipolopolo Boys** or Copper Bullet Boys – upset the clear favourites of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament (AFCON) by beating the Ivory Coast in the final in an 8-7 penalty shootout.

On a continent that has been waging some of the most embittered, entrenched and bloody conflicts in recent decades, the AFCON tournament has the potential to bring Africans together in a way that only the power of sport can inspire.

The 1992 winners of the tournament – the Ivory Coast – showed in 2006, for instance, that after months of bloodshed, their 20 million-strong population reached a truce between both factions of the civil war that was taking place so that the nation would be well supported in the 2006 World Cup.

This is the power of football in Africa.

This year’s final, typical of professional football at this level, reached beyond Africa. It was an opportunity for players signed to the richest clubs in Europe to showcase their talents at Africa’s premier tournament. Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester….these kinds of club names have been as synonymous with AFCON as the unbearable heat of the competition.

Here are some statistics to chew on thanks to research done by the European Club Association:

Did you know that…  

  • 120 European clubs from 25 different UEFA Member Associations are involved in the release of players (including 38 ECA Members)
  • 49% of the CAN players (179 players from a total of 368) currently play in one of the European National Championships
  • 44% of players (or 163 from a total of 368) play in one of the African National Championships
  • 30.4% (112) of the African players play in France, Spain, Germany, England or Italy
  • 22 out of 23 players of the National Team of the Ivory Coast play in Europe
  • 7 French clubs have released 4 players each

Take another look at the numbers.

Is there an equivalent term out there for “brain drain” when it comes to football? The “foot drain”, if it can be called that, is staggering. Others may be more familiar with the term “football imperialism” as it was named during the World Cup recently in South Africa 2010.

No surprises then that commentators have been penning this years’ final as a “Europe” vs Africa battleground. Prior to the final, Carlos Amato of the Mail & Guardian newspaper (South Africa) believed that watching the match neutrally was never an option for fans:

the cream of African football’s Europe-based aristocracy will meet with a robust Africa-based challenge. Of the Chipolopolo squad [Zambia], only the superb young goalscorer, Emmanuel Mayuka of Young Boys Berne, plays his club football in Europe.

With only one European club player kicking for Zambia, this stands out against the 22 out of 23 players released from European clubs to play for the Ivory Coast team.

These kinds of balance sheet statistics are undeniable: the final should have been nothing more than a 90 minute formality for the Ivory Coast before collecting their medals.  Ivory Coast boss Francois Zahoui has shrugged this kind of criticism already, telling his players that the Africa Cup of Nations is more important than playing for their clubs and to “forget the luxury of Europe”. The issue of overpaid “elite” footballers has not gone unnoticed by African commentators.  This, after all, has been a normal way of life for people outside looking in on the tournament.

Co-hosts of the competition, Equatorial Guinea, are no strangers to the extreme commercial wealth that has funded development projects existing alongside gross mass poverty, with more than 70% of the population living below the poverty line. The story in Zambia is not dissimilar: 68% of Zambians live below the poverty line in the midst of a deficit of long term economic and political incentives to move Zambia forward. For the powerful then, it seems, corruption is but a way of life.

Modernisation projects across Africa may carry their own share of challenges, but celebrating football has never been one of them. If anything, it has been the social glue on a fractured, vastly diverse continent that is still coming to terms with its colonial past.

That Zambia reached the final at all has been looked on as a generous spate of good luck. That they beat the best of Africa is, well, something else entirely.

Today’s editorial from popular Zambian newspaper The Post speaks directly to this spirit that has captivated the entire country, looking to a future inclusive of all Zambians. It is a hopeful message, and one well worth taking note of and sharing:

We must not lose ourselves, in everything that we do, including our politics, to cynicism, pessimism and despair. We can win and we have won. Wherever you are today, we challenge you to hope and to dream of a better future, a better country, a more just, fair, humane and prosperous Zambia. Don’t submerge your dreams.

Even in the gutter, dream of the day that you will be upon your feet again. You must never stop dreaming. It is said that today’s dreams are tomorrow’s reality; yesterday’s dreams are today’s reality…

…Dream of a peaceful and prosperous Zambia. Dream of a Zambia where every child who wants to kick a ball has access to a ball. Dream of a Zambia where every child has the possibilities or opportunities of making themselves what they want to be – a Chris Katongo, an Emmanuel Mayuka, a Kennedy Mweene, and so on and so forth.

Dream of a nation where the political leadership is honest and incorruptible, is caring and loving, is hard working and thrift. Dream of a nation in which teachers teach for life and not for a living. Dream of a Zambia with medical doctors who are concerned more about public health than private wealth. Dream of lawyers more concerned about justice than money. Dream of preachers who are concerned more about prophecy than profiteering. Dream on the high road of sound values.

Dream of a Zambia that refuses to surrender to corruption, abuse of power, intolerance and other vices. Go forward in the Chipolopolo way. Zambia must never surrender to malnutrition. We can feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We must never surrender.


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  • ** Chilolopolo Boys or Copper Bullet Boys is the name given to the Zambian national football team after Zambia’s primary export, copper. For many years the saying “Copper is king” symbolised how Zambia depended on copper for most of its foreign earnings and as a result the national economy suffers when copper prices decline.
  • Chipolopolo, iyeee; Chipolopolo iyeee… by Editorial Comment | 13/02/12 | The Post | Inspirational editorial from Zambian national newspaper on Zambia beating Ivory Coast in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations
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