Odds stacked against Zambia

Only five of 27 title holders have defended their crown as coach shrugs off the pressure ahead of Africa Cup of Nations.

    Odds stacked against Zambia
    Zambia surprised everyone last year after beating favourites Ivory Coast in a thrilling penalty shootout [EPA]

    The odds are stacked against Zambia staging a successful defence of the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off Saturday.

    Only five of 27 title holders since the competition began as a three-team event in Khartoum 56 years ago have clung to the crown with Egypt succeeding three times and Ghana and Cameroon once each.

    Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana and South Africa also reached the final as defending champions only to fall at the final hurdle as they sought to confirm their pan-African football supremacy.

    Surprise win

    Zambia mocked the form book last February to lift the trophy after a penalty shootout with hot favourites Ivory Coast following 120 tense, goalless minutes in Gabonese capital Libreville.

    Few outside the landlocked, copper-rich southern African country had given the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) a chance of going all the way with Ivory Coast and Ghana widely expected to contest the climax of the three-week tournament.

    But Zambia upset star-stacked Senegal, came from behind twice to hold Libya and defeated co-hosts Equatorial Guinea to reach the knockout stage, then outplayed Sudan and shocked Ghana to make the final.

    Drawn with bogey team Nigeria and rank outsiders Burkina Faso and Ethiopia in Nelspruit-based Group C, the defending champions are not expected to encounter too many difficulties reaching the round-of-eight phase.

    But that is where the competition is likely to become much more severe for France-born coach Herve Renard, inspirational captain and striker Christopher Katongo and a hard-working, ego-less squad.

    Should Zambia top the Nelspruit table, Algeria or Tunisia are probable rivals, and should they finish second, there is a good possibility of a re-match of the 2012 final against Ivory Coast.

    ‘No pressure’

    Almost a year after winning the competition, taskmaster Renard is still revelling in what he achieved against the odds, looking forward to the first round clash on January 21 with Ethiopia, and unconcerned with history.

    "I am very proud to be an African champion. I did not imagine for one second a couple of years ago that my coaching would help Zambia win the Africa Cup of Nations," he told reporters.

    "We have six points from two matches in the World Cup qualifiers and we came through a tough tie against Uganda to reach the Cup of Nations. What more can I ask?

    "Pressure? There is no pressure on me. Please do not create pressure on me when none exists. I just want to participate in a fantastic tournament and enjoy myself.

    "We are confident. We did it in 2012 when no one gave us a chance. Do not bet too much money against us repeating the feat," warned the 44-year-old native of Aix-les-Bains in south-eastern France.

    It will cheer Renard to know that after 10 first-round departures in 12 tournaments between 1970 and 1992, Africa Cup of Nations holders have fared much better, reaching at least the quarter-finals since.



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