Thursday 26 April 2018

Football always the great leveller

Eamonn Sweeney

Sometimes sport is just wonderful. Uncomplicatedly, unmitigatedly, blessedly, beautifully wonderful.

It was good that Zambia won the African Nations Cup for the first time ever, having started the tournament as 40/1 outsiders while being rated a historically low 101st in the world.

But it was better that in the final their team, with players drawn from the likes of South Africa's Super Sport United, China's Henan Construction, Russian second flighters Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast and Zambia's own Green Buffaloes, defeated an Ivory Coast team which included Didier Drogba, Yaya and Kolo Toure, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou.

And it was better again that they did it in the penalty shoot-out to end all penalty shoot-outs, one in which 14 spot-kicks in a row were put away successfully before Zambia finally triumphed 8-7.

It was good that this victory functioned as a memorial to the Zambian national team which was wiped out virtually en masse on April 27, 1993 when their plane crashed shortly after leaving Libreville Airport in Gabon.

But it was even better that the current president of the Zambian FA is Kalusha Bwalya, who was the star of the 1993 side and missed the crash only because he was making his own way from PSV Eindhoven to their World Cup qualifying match in Senegal.

And it was better again that their victory this day last week took place in Libreville, the very city where the current team's predecessors, and Bwalya's former team-mates, met their death almost two decades ago.

In Zambia, the average life expectancy is 53 and the average annual income per head is around €1,100. The country ranks 164th out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index, behind Yemen, Angola and Haiti. But on Sunday night it must have felt like the centre of the sporting universe. Say what you like about football but it provides a much leveller playing field than politics or economics ever do or ever will.

Given the heroics of Zambia and such other battling underdogs as Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, isn't there something terrible about the fact that, in this part of the world, a tournament carrying the hopes of a huge swathe of the world's footballing population was covered almost solely in terms of the handful of matches missed in the Premier League by a minority of the players?

It was our loss.

Sunday Indo Sport

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