The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations is down to its last two teams. The Ivory Coast and Zambia have survived the winter tournament and will meet on Sunday at 2 p.m. EST in Libreville, Gabon to determine the champion.
African tournaments are a mystical affair, wholly different than anything else we have come to know. Lacking the over-corporatization of European games, they reserve a certain humbleness. Not quite matching the amount of fervor in South America, they can also mean half-full stadiums.
However, where it truly differs is in the context in which the African tournament is played. For the people of the world’s most impoverished continent, sports—and football in particular—represent a sort of common ground. A place where the civil wars waged in many of these militant lands can have both sides in unison backing their players with chants, not arms.
In 2006, the Ivory Coast was in the midst of the First Ivorian Civil War. The brutal affair, which cost nearly double the amount of civilian lives as armed soldiers, had the UN and French military deploying troops to attempt to calm the environment. Instead, the foreigners were looked at as invaders, and the militia rebels of the north only amplified their attacks.
But earlier that year, the football team for the small West African nation qualified for their first ever FIFA World Cup. Led by the indomitable striker Didier Drogba, the Les Éléphants would be heading to Germany in the summer and had asked for a truce between the warring factions so the entire population of 20 million would be behind them as they entered unknown territory.
The Ivorian Federation even went further to continue peace following the tournament, setting up a match in the rebel stronghold of Bouaké. One of the first times the team played in their home country since the World Cup was not to be missed, no matter what side of the fight you were on.
Twenty-five thousand fans packed into Bouaké Stadium as their team crushed Madagascar, 5-0. Rebels who had been burning villages a year earlier were now cheering in unison with their victims, and government troops, who had brutally killed young brainwashed boys unsure of their allegiance, were hoisting them on their shoulders to get a better view.
Football did for the Ivory Coast what politics failed to do—bring peace.
This does not make the Ivorians the only song of perseverance in this match. Zambia is not without its own hardship.
The southeastern nation, lying in the heart of the tropical belt, is one of the most poverty-stricken countries in the world. An incredible 68 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, a position many have been put in by no fault of their own, but rather the decades of unrest that preceded them.
Like much of Africa, the post-colonized world has left Zambia empty, broken and with little resources to build on. An unruly period following the departure of English officials, who had used the land for its mining reserves, gave the nation ties with Soviet regimes and other questionable figures such as Saddam Hussein.
However, Zambia has begun to right centuries of injustice in recent decades as they have found ways to utilize their resources to better effect, capitalizing on the abundance of copper in the region. The GDP has steadily been increasing, and investor confidence is at an all-time high.
But this is not without controversy.
Education rates are still a farce, making an effective democracy impossible. With over 10 percent of the population suffering from AIDS and unable to receive proper healthcare, issues still arise over public safety. And though the copper ore is bringing unprecedented wealth, it is also destroying the fragile ecosystem of the rain forest.
For most, these are not the concerns of daily life. The money coming in is rarely seen by the masses, and the issues that abound are too petty for a population whose main daily concern is having something to eat.
However, in 1993, the nation was divided like never before. Not over politics or social upheaval, but a tragedy involving the game of football.
The 1993 Zambia national team was one of the best the nation had ever seen. As the squad was on its way to play a World Cup qualifier against Senegal, a combination of faulty equipment and human error caused their plane to crash about 500 meters from the shore of Gabon.
The entire team and staff aboard were killed, 30 people altogether. It still stands today as a tragedy that set back a footballing nation on the rise and one of the rare moments where all 12 million people found themselves united together under the same emotion.
Come Monday morning, the issues that surround these nations will still be present. Poverty will be the majority, disease will run rampant, and political uncertainty will cause more issues for the future than solve them for the present.
But on Sunday, for at least those two hours in a small coastal capital whose name is a derivation of “freedom," it will not matter.
The Ivory Coast are the heavy favorites to win, as a generation that has produced great players like Drogba, Gervinho, Kolo Toure and his brother Yaya is finally looking to make an impact on the international level, winning their first ACN title in a decade.
Zambia will go in with few betting dollars on them, but surely the hearts of all the neutrals, attempting to have a phoenix-like rebirth only miles from where much of their nation’s hearts still lies. They hope to make their first-ever trip to the finals a historic one.
Perhaps this article is no better than the colonizers who looked upon the people of Africa as something other. Here I am in my Brooklyn apartment discussing the culture and politics of a nation that I have next to no true knowledge about.
But I do understand sports and how they essentially operate like male dramas. The better the storylines leading up to the games, the more important the games become.
So, while Spain and the Netherlands gave us a great match in 2010, it was the story of crowning a new champion. One who would enter an elite group of nations, gifted with the blessing of footballing talent, resources and tradition.
That game mattered to the people of Spain and the Netherlands because it was an activity—an escape from a social reality.
But for the people of the Ivory Coast and Zambia it is much more than that. This game, this silly little 90 minutes of grown men kicking a ball, is unifying a cultural reality. One that breaks away from social, economical and political barriers, a microcosm of equality, something many of the people of Africa have never felt.
At the final whistle, a winner will be crowned on the field, reflected in the score. But what the scoreboard will not record is the positive results the game will have for the people of the Ivory Coast, Zambia and Africa as a whole.
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