The Contrasting Fortunes of Nigeria & Zambia

In 2010 Nigeria and Zambia faced one another in the ACoN quarterfinal. Back then Nigeria expected victory, whilst Zambia were content to progress. In three years fortunes have changed.

Friday will see Zambia up against Nigeria in the African Cup of Nations for the first time since 2010, when the Super Eagles, belying their name, scraped through 5-4 on penalties against Hervé Renard’s Zambia. Three years on from that meeting the teams find themselves in markedly different situations.

In the period between 2010 and 2013, much has occurred to effectively reverse the relative positions of these teams in the African football hierarchy. Nigeria, for so long a leading nation on the continent, are no longer automatically placed as frontrunners for the title. Zambia, in contrast, arrive at this year’s African Cup of Nations as the defending champions after a miraculous victory over the Ivory Coast in Gabon just last year.

Nigeria’s steady decline started in 2010. After finishing third in the African Cup of Nations that year, there were real expectations that the team could shine at the World Cup in South Africa. The oft-repeated maxim was that this was a tournament for the whole of Africa. As such, expectations of the home nations were high.

Though Nigeria’s failure to qualify from their group - in fact, their failure to win any matches - in the 2010 World Cup was a low point, much of the blame for their fall from footballing grace can be laid at the door of the division and malaise that followed the tournament. Poor performance became political as both the Nigerian FA and the nation’s newly elected president waded into the debate. This culminated in the following stinging retort at the team’s failure to qualify:

"President Goodluck Jonathan has directed that Nigeria withdraws from international competition for two years to enable the country to put its house in order. This directive became necessary following Nigeria's poor performance in the ongoing World Cup."

Although the ban was never implemented, it was against FIFA regulations, Nigeria continued to struggle. After such a damning indictment, perhaps understandably so. Condemnation at home bristled against Nigerian football’s long held sense of entitlement. After years at the top of African football and equipped with some of Africa’s finest players, the overwhelming feeling was that the team expected victory but was not prepared to earn it. Considering the President of the country was willing to withdraw them from international competition to restructure the national setup, this is at once confusing and contradictory.

After failing to qualify for last year’s tournament in Gabon, Nigeria arrive in South Africa with a newfound sense of realism; an awareness that they could achieve something here but not without application. With a new generation emerging – players such as Victor Moses, John Obi Michael and Emma Emenike – fans can be cautiously optimistic. But, unlike three years ago, they do not arrive as favourites or with any assumptions of victory.

Zambia, on the other hand, are the defending champions; something that would have been unimaginable just three years ago. Coached by the enigmatic Hervé Renard they have gone from strength to strength, surpassing all expectations en route. Zambia’s fortunes have been a mirror to those of Nigeria. In 2010 Zambia, who have struggled in recent years, reached the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations for the first time since 1996, this achievement marked the start of their footballing ascent.

Football often has a habit of producing poetic circumstances and placing the ascendant Zambian side looking for a remarkable triumph at the scene of their greatest tragedy was the footballing fates at their film script finest. 

In Hollywood it would all have been clear from the moment it was announced that Gabon was to host the tournament: a redemptive and destined victory. But in football, victories tend to be hard-earned not destined. Zambia arrived un-fancied in Gabon where in 1993 the national team’s flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 30 on board, including 18 players. In an instant Zambia’s most promising generation had all but been wiped out, aside from their best player, Kalusha Bwaly, who was making his own way to the game from the Netherlands where he played for PSV.

Despite a lack of expectation, Zambia were well aware of the emotion surrounding their return to Gabon. "There's something written that we have to go to play, to honour the memories of the Zambia national team that died in 1993," explained the coach Hervé Renard. Whereas the Nigerian players failed to make the most of their talent, the Zambian players played to their absolute maximum, aware that they weren’t just playing for themselves but for the players and staff who had lost their lives 19 years earlier.

Miraculous, 2012 may have been, but it was richly deserved. Zambia were not the most exciting team during the tournament. Not the team of a Hollywood screenwriter but of a shrewd tactician;  their stoic defence and ability to grind out results – something we’re often reminded is the hallmark of a great team – rewarded them with the title they sought for the memory of those who died.

Ahead of Friday’s match the contrasting form and fortunes of these teams since 2010 provide narrative and context and events on the pitch will allow some insight. But for a final analysis of how these two teams have progressed we await to see how they fare at this year’s African Cup of Nations.

Words by SPIEL

Graphic by SPIEL