Against all odds, Zambia won the 2012 African Cup of Nations, beating the Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties, after 120 goalless minutes of action.
The underdogs crowned a captivating story with their victory, when Stophira Sunzu fired home the winning penalty after Arsenal forward Gervinho had missed his spotkick.
Zambia dedicated their win to 18 team members who died in a plane crash in 1993 off the coast of Gabon, not far from the Libreville Stadium where they triumphed Sunday, while en route to a match in Senegal.
Ivory Coast, meanwhile, experienced more heartache, having lost to Egypt in the 2006 final in the same manner. Their fans will dwell upon Didier Drogba’s penalty miss in normal time, as they failed to add to their sole African Nations triumph in 1992.
However, the conclusion, albeit painful for the Elephants, provided a fairytale ending to a gloriously unpredictable tournament.
The final was the usual carnival of colours associated with African football, and the game itself, although goalless, was not without incident.
Missed penalties will dominate the headlines, but it was resolute defending and outstanding goalkeeping that provided the real stories in a match which remained deadlocked until the 15th penalty in the shootout.
Ivory Coast were heavily favoured before the game; their team sheet rich with English Premier League and European stars, and had not conceded a single goal in the tournament en route to the final, a record that remained intact despite the loss.
Zambia, 71st in the FIFA rankings when the competition began, defied the odds under their French manager, Hervé Renard, who led them past Senegal and Ghana to their third African Nations final.
With just five members of the squad playing football outside of Africa (three in Asia, and one each in Russia and Switzerland), many felt they had an impossible task against the big Ivorian names, but they turned in another inspired display to keep the favourites at bay for a full 120 minutes.
Zambia were more than a match for their illustrious opponents, and it was the Ivorian 'keeper, Boubacar Barry, who had to make the first meaningful save in the contest, keeping out a well-worked corner, before the underdogs were forced into an early change when their 34-year old defender Joseph Musonda injured his ankle and left the field in tears.
Yaya Toure came closest for Ivory Coast just before half-time, shooting wide of the post following a delightful backheel from Drogba in a first half with little incident.
The second 45 minutes, however, provided much more action, not least when Gervinho was adjudged to have been bundled over in the penalty area just after the hour mark.
On second glance, initial contact may have taken place outside the box, but it was a difficult decision for the referee, who pointed to the spot.
Incredibly, Drogba fired his spotkick well over the crossbar, and Zambia were given a reprieve.
Ivory Coast then introduced Max Gradel to proceedings, and his pace proved a real handful for the Chipolopolo. The former Leeds man also came close to settling the contest in normal time, but his shot trickled wide of the post with just minutes remaining.
The ineffective Yaya Toure was withdrawn, and although Ivory Coast looked the stronger team in extra time, they could not find a way through the staunch Zambian defence.
Zambia’s talisman, Chris Katongo, even had the best chance in extra time, but Barry somehow poked his shot onto the post with a remarkable save, and Ivory Coast survived.
At the other end, Kennedy Mweene was unbeatable, and commanded his area well, relieving a lot of pressure for his side as Ivory Coast increasingly used high balls into the box to try and break the deadlock.
However, following a match dominated by outstanding defending from both sides, the brutal reality of a penalty shootout loomed over the two teams.
The Zambians took up positions on their knees, and sung together as the shootout progressed, believing that fate was on their side, and they thought they had earned an advantage when Mweene saved Sol Bamba’s effort, only for the goalkeeper to be penalised for encroachment, allowing Bamba to score the retake.
Didier Drogba showed nerves of steel to ignore his previous miss with sudden death looming, and Mweene himself ensured the shootout headed past the first 10 attempts with a cool finish of his own.
The charismatic Zambian stopper then kept out Kolo Toure’s weak spotkick, giving Zambia the chance to win, only for Rainford Kabala to blaze his effort over the bar.
They were immediately afforded another chance to win when Gervinho shot high and wide, and this time they made no mistake, with Sunzu scoring the winner to spark wild celebrations in Gabon, and back home in Zambia.
Their vocal manager had previously told his team that “this was their time,” and his support was vindicated as they showed great composure to win their first African Nations title.
Their determination and grit was unquestionable, and their team spirit remained strong to the end, epitomised by the sight of Renard carrying injured defender Musonda down the touchline so he could join his teammates’ celebrations.
The Frenchman told TV cameras after the match that he knew his team were not the best technically, but they were spurred on by their strength and spirit. Few could argue with the man who helped lead his team to such an unlikely success.
For the Ivory Coast, the wait for glory continues, but the older generation of players, including Didier Drogba, might have one final attempt at glory when the tournament takes place in South Africa in 2013.
In 2012, all the glory goes to Zambia, who dedicated their win to those who lost their lives in the tragic 1993 plane crash. The players and coaches will now return to their home country as national heroes, following a proud campaign which could not have been scripted better.
In the most unlikely of stories, Zambia won their first ever African Cup of Nations; their victory taking place in Libreville, Gabon, just a few hundred metres from the site of the 1993 crash.
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