In truth, the Sunderland link may seem slight as Afcon 2012 prepares for launch. A glance at our history offers a reminder of its mighty origins. Luke Harvey explans …
The looming African Cup of Nations held in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon signals what many pundits deride as an unnecessary distraction from the Premier League.
This blatant disregard for Africa’s premier national team tournament is quite evident amongst the media.
Questions are raised about the sheer gall of Africa to have a tournament during the sacred Premier League season. And while the effect the tournament has on teams in the Premier League is often over-exaggerated, the tournament is a showcase for some of the brightest up and coming players from the continent.
Many of the players involved have defied the odds to make themselves a success in some of the strongest leagues in Europe; many more dream of following them.
As Sunderland fans we may struggle to find any affiliation with any of the participating nations. There would have been Ahmed Elmohamady had Egypt managed to qualify. As they, along with other large nations such as Cameroon, DR Congo, Nigeria and South Africa, failed to do so, Elmohamady will remain on Wearside, however much many fans would have been glad to see the back of him for a month or so.
But if you are looking for a nation to lend your support to, and you really should consider it, then look no further than Zambia.
The Chipolopolo, translated as the Copper Bullets, open their campaign against Senegal on the first day of the tournament. Now this isn’t a piece about how we should opt for the “anyone but Senegal” mantra because two of their strikers – Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé – play for Newcastle. I wouldn’t be so childish.
In fact, Zambia and Sunderland share a link. Perhaps it’s somewhat tenuous but finding a legitimate link between a midtable Premier League team and an African nation isn’t exactly straightforward.
The late Ian Porterfield, our FA Cup hero of 1973 provides it. In 1993, some 20 years after that volley against Leeds gave us our last taste of major silverware, Porterfield spent a year as manager of Zambia, the first of many obscure national team appointments for the globetrotting Scotsman which included the likes of Zimbabwe and Oman in the years after.
Porterfield was installed as manager for a nation who were still in mourning. Zambia were reeling from the aircraft disaster that claimed the lives of 30 men – 18 players, four staff members including head coach Godfrey Chitalu, five crew members and three others, the FAZ Chairman, a public servant and a journalist. All passengers on board were killed when the plane crashed due to engine failure off the coast of Gabon.
The team were on their way to play Senegal.
To taste success in this year’s tournament, Zambia must first negotiate a tough group stage, the aformentioned Senegal boasting a strike force that puts many experienced European nations to shame: Mamadou Niang, Moussa Sow, and Newcastle’s Ba and Cissé. As well as one of the tournament favourites, Zamia will also have the company of one of the tournament hosts, Equatorial Guinea, who will be buoyed by the boisterous home crowds.
Finally Zambia will have a Libyan team who have overcome their own recent adversity to reach this stage.
Having begun qualification in a country led by the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya now go into this tournament with a different government, a new flag and a new national anthem. Their qualification is made all the more remarkable given that one fixture had to be played with the omission of Tripoli-based players due to fighting in the city.
For Zambia a final held at the Stade d’Angondjé in Libreville, Gabon is at stake. And an opportunity for a pilgrimage to the site where one of the brightest Zambian teams tragically perished.
In the months following the crash a makeshift Zambian team, put together by the captain Kalusha Bwalya – who had not been on the flight – completed a successful qualification stage for the 1994 African Cup of Nations and nearly went all the way, only to be defeated in the final by a superior Nigerian team.
Nineteen years on and Zambia could well display the determination that saw them to the final in ’94 and ultimately appreciated as national heroes once more. For Zambia to reach the final, however improbable, you feel it would be a nod in the direction of destiny.