AFCON 2013: Zambia Expect Tough Game Against Ethiopia
Zambia begin the defence of their Africa Cup of Nations crown when they meet Ethiopia at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on Monday evening.
Chipolopolo were surprise winners in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2012, beating Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire in what was a fully-deserved maiden tournament victory for the Southern African side.
They could not have chosen a better place to defend their crown either, with almost half of their squad either currently playing their club football in South Africa, or having done so in the past.
The Zambian squad have spoken time and again of how comfortable they feel in their “second home”, and how relaxed they are ahead of this tournament in particular. Just as their status as rank outsiders a year ago took pressure off them, the fact that few have tipped them to retain their title perhaps puts them a little more at ease this year.
The scepticism over their chances has been built on patchy form since their victory in the continental showpiece, though tellingly perhaps they did manage a 1-0 win against South Africa in a friendly in November, a rare home defeat for Bafana Bafana against African opposition.
Scorer on that day was Collins Mbesuma, a player who has extensive experience in the South African PSL and Europe and who could be a leading figure in the 2013 tournament. He says the side are not worried by their lacklustre build-up.
“No, we are not worried about the results, we are preparing and as you know there a lot of players, so the coach just wants to find the right formula,” Mbesuma said. “We will be a different team when the tournament starts and know what the people are expecting from us when we start the games.”
Zambian coach Herve Renard has an excellent Nations Cup record, leading the side to the quarter-finals in 2010 and their title triumph last year. He respects the Ethiopian side and says his team must be wary.
“They have a lot of skilled players able to run up to the end of the 90th minute,” Renard said. “We have to be very careful about this team.
That means it will not be very easy to destabilise this team. That means we know it will be very tough.”
Ethiopia arrived in South Africa only on Friday, the last team to come in.
Coach Sewnet Bishaw has accepted his side’s minnow status; of all the 16 teams at the tournament, they are after all the lowest-positioned side in the FIFA world rankings, listed at number 110.
But he says they will surprise and he’s happy with their build-up.
“Our confidence is sky high. We are looking at going as far as we can with the first aim being the quarter-finals,” he said.
The players have been promised U.S. $100,000 each if they win the tournament, a handy carrot indeed, but this is also about rebuilding the image of Ethiopian football in their first visit to the continental showpiece in 31 years.