The champions bid farewell
So it came to pass that Zambia’s Chipolopolo crashed out of the AFCON 2013 tournament in South Africa.
For a team that entertained and endeared so much in the Gabon/Equatorial Guinea edition in 2012, this exit was a huge blow. A first round failure last witnessed in 1992 when Algeria achieved a similar feat.
Prior to the tournament, I knew I would be expecting too much if I maintained we would defend the trophy. But a first round elimination was not part of my expected package.
However, through the ordeal I have noted a parallel with our national character. I therefore believe even through the hurt of the 2013 disaster, there is opportunity to learn, aspire and pursue progress.
I share my thoughts below.
The importance of preparation
For many, this seems to only be represented by the number of friendly games played. It should be more and includes mental preparation.
How psyched were our players for a tournament they entered as defending champions? How much of a winning “never say die” attitude do they have in their DNA?
This is of extreme importance such that as pressure and expectation mounts, the adrenaline fuels success because of an underlying belief. A belief that destiny remains in our hands as far as success goes. This is a fact to be reinforced by necessary investment in structured and comprehensive preparations with a clear end result in mind- victory, pride and national progress.
This is the present challenge. How do we prepare for success and a future we desire? We ought to have these answers now and today.
Action must always follow
During such moments, we are all ambushed with our analyses, soccer experts’ opinions and endless talk in offices, homes, clubs and the streets.
The truth remains that no matter how much talk there is, action is the inevitable next step. Only a few remain to deliver the action.
We must now be moving away from being a talking nation. Rather we must craft our future, be explicit about where we must be and the hard work that must follow. Success is planned and must never be accidental.
Is Zambia ready to act and walk the talk after this? This is in all spheres and not entirely soccer. We await.
As it stands, we have spoken enough, analysed and debated. But to achieve anything meaningful, we must take the first step. We must act on the intention.
The writing on the wall
Painful as it may be, the Chipolopolo’s performances after AFCON 2012 have been telling us something many of us opted to ignore. The losses, draws, 1 nil scorelines and laboured games must have indicated what has now befallen us.
But then we have been biased and did not want to face these facts. It is hard to stomach and accept anything that does not resemble the end we hope for. It is my considered view that Chipolopolo have not been convincing in their pre-tournament games and this fact came to haunt us in South Africa.
The rationale should be similar at national level in the economic, political or developmental spheres. Where are we headed? What is the writing on the wall and what needs to happen to spare us an embarrassing end?
We do not need crystal balls or prophets to spell it out. We bring the future to life with today’s actions and choices. Therefore our attention now as a nation must be on what we are doing, the decisions we are taking and priorities we are setting.
Same old plot, different cast?
One of the noises that may come through now has to be along the lines of the cliche “let’s go back to the drawing board”. We have been there before.
Nothing wrong with a performance review. But it is when the cycle is consistent and no meaningful or sustainable change is noted. So perhaps even with different people, we will talk about axing the coach maybe, cane the administrators and all sorts of proposals.
It is at that stage that we lose direction and the value of a comprehensive review.
At this point, the critical questions for the administrators are “what is the blueprint for the game?”, “how has the money won last year been invested?” and “what has been put together so we make it to Brazil next year?”. These seem trivial and simplistic but some of the solutions we need are actually basic and stunningly simple.
We can pluck some learning from South Africa. Revenue generated from hosting of the World Cup has been well allocated for investment in the development of the game. The point here is not the amounts or scale of a nation but the principle of strategic planning.
It is time to do the right thing and plan more effectively. This can set us on a path of sustainable success not only in soccer but as a nation.
Celebrate and make hay while the sun shines
Success must be enjoyed. It must be used to network and get to the top. Zambia should have been a sought after team even during this brief period as continental champions.
Regardless of the views from cynics, the fact was and is that Chipolopolo were the 2012 African soccer kings. This is a branding opportunity that should have been leveraged to its maximum. We have seen so many of our players on soap/detergent adverts and billboards. More should have followed in tourism promotion, quality opponents in friendly games and generally raising Zambia’s profile globally.
We are no longer champions. That is a foregone conclusion. We may not have the same opportunity but that does not mean there is none. It is a new window open to us. That of a former continental champion, a worthy African team.
But to exploit this, we need to step up on performances on the pitch so we are courted as quality opposition. This must start with our first game after our exit. We must excite, outperform and get the results in style. That will ensure we remain in the limelight and enhance our national brand.
Again, on the national level this can be adopted. Copper prices have been on a consistent relative high, we have enjoyed international goodwill and continue seeing revived national zeal and pride. How can we utilise all these factors for the benefit of current and future generations?
Facing the hard truth
We must be honest enough to be harsh and ambitious enough to set a high bar. The truth is that much as we may be patriotic and love our boys, we underperformed. We did well not to lose, in two consecutive tournaments in fact. But we did not do well enough to win in South Africa. It is as simple as that.
Those that know how to do the business did it and got the required results. Look at South Africa, Cape Verde, Burkina Faso and Nigeria in their last games for instance. They were clear on what needed to be achieved and they got it. It doesn’t matter how but the intent was clear. Ivory Coast too showed this quality against Algeria coming from 0-2 down. Big teams strive to get the right result.
We dominated against Burkina Faso. But we were not clinical enough to nail them. We could not change our approach when it was evident they would play a cagey game to soak in everything we threw at them. On that score alone, the Burkinabes’ game plan was more effective than ours. It delivered the end they desired and Chipolopolo are back home.
Yes we will always love our boys and welcome them back. We are not the first to suffer this humiliation. We have our sights on Brazil now. We played well.
But even as we console ourselves in this manner, let us be tough on ourselves. Our 2012 victory may have been deemed a fluke by some but we emerged champions.
Therefore we did not go to South Africa as just another team. We were champions. It follows then that a first round exit was a huge failure and we under performed. There can be no way of sugar coating that fact. I did not expect that we would lift the trophy again. Neither did I expect that the boys would be back home after three games, three stalemates and two goals.
The ability to face the hard truth is the approach we need towards national affairs. Where can we improve? Where are we lagging behind? Where are we failing? These are questions to pose regardless of political affiliation. Without bias, emotion or senseless exchanges, we must identify our weakest links and facilitate progress.
The future is now
We must now set our sights on youth football, the next generation, the 2014 World Cup, 2015 AFCON and our overall progress as a nation.
How are we going to flush out mediocrity, low performance standards, excuses and postponed success? What stops us from achieving now? Our mindset and attitude towards achievement, quality, planning and execution must be the main ingredients for our national success.
A painful disaster and failure such as the AFCON exit is a perfect opportunity for a great start, towards an ambitious future. A prosperous future that a young Zambian nation yearns for so much.
The noble eagle must rise and the copper bullet needs to hit the target again.
Let’s go Chipolopolo. Let’s go Zambia. Success is a choice.