I think all of those who watched yesterday’s African Cup of Nations Final match between Ivory Coast and Zambia share my feeling: we were privileged to be allowed to participate in one of the more remarkable moments in modern sporting history. It was one, of course, that went largely under the radar in the U.S.: it was not aired here, there was little coverage in our press, and if you tried to grab someone excitedly on the street and shout “Zambia won!” you probably would have gotten a blank stare — though of course it depends on what street.
Jonathan Wilson, who provided excellent coverage of the tournament, wrote this beautiful match report for The Guardian. And Peter Alegi has written a striking account of the experience of watching the game, which includes videos of the grueling and intense penalty kick shoot-out. There was a tenderness, even love, to this experience that was truly remarkable: one felt that the teams were, in a way, suffering through this moment together, and deeply. All knew that any victory would mean suffering for the other team. When Zambia’s goalie Mweene took and made a penalty kick, the Ivory Coast goalie shook his hand afterwards. And singing, prayers, looks upwards, accompanied each step of the ordeal.
There is plenty to worry about with regards to African Football, as Achille Mbembe noted in a sharp interview entitled “Un tournoi de nains” — “A Tournament of Dwarves?” Yet Zambia’s victory was significant, among other things, because nearly all the players on the team are based in Africa (notably in South Africa) rather than in Europe. It was a striking contrast to the Ivory Coast team, with a star-studded roster of names familiar to anyone who watches the English Premier League. The victory should raise new questions in the long running debate about what the best way for African nations to cultivate successful teams on the international level.
The historicity of the moment, of course, had everything today with the those who haunted it: the 1993 Zambia football team, nearly all of whom had perished in a plane crash just off the coast of Gabon on their way to the Cup of Nations in that year. Leigh Montville wrote a remarkable piece about that for Sports Illustrated. And you can hear the 1993 BBC report about the deaths here. A generation of Zambia’s greatest footballers was decimated. And, as Al Jazeera reported, the 2012 team prepared for yesterday’s final by making a pilgrimage to the coast to lay wreaths in memory of the dead.
As Paul Darby — a brilliant historian of African football — noted in a comment on the Football is Coming Home Blog, the contrast with what happened the day before within the super-monetized spectacle of the Premier League could not have been more striking. “A tale of two handshakes – the one that never was between Suarez and Evra and the one between Mweene and Barry during the penalty shoot out – highlighted the gulf in class between events in Libreville and planet Premiership.” It’s worth taking some time to think through precisely what the intersection of these two events means about the current state of global football, and it’s possible futures.
Perhaps the most remarkable moment of the evening came afterwards, though. Joseph Musonda, a 34-year-old veteran of the team who knew this would likely be his last chance to play in an African Cup of Nations final, was hurt in the opening minutes of the game. He had to watch, in pain, powerless, from the sidelines for the next 2 hours. But his teammates made sure he could ultimately celebrate a victory. And his coach, Herve Renard, made sure that he could be amongst them as they prayed in thanks, honoring the generations who had brought them to this moment.