Why Ivory Coast and Zambia are battling history as well as each other in tonight's ACN final
The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations gets underway this week and www.theelastico.com 's Chris Atkins will be blogging for MirrorFootball throughout the tournament. Click here to read his preview of the competition.
The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations final will be much more than simply a game of football, for this is a match whose outcome is personal to both sides for entirely contrasting reasons. Zambia make their first trip to Gabon in the tournament, to Libreville, the city where 20 Zambian players and coaches lost their lives in a tragic air crash in 1993. Whereas for Ivory Coast, it is a chance to mend some wounded injuries.
For Zambia, the shadow of those events 20 years ago has long hung over the country and its football team. Although tournament results remained strong in 1994 and 1996, despite the loss of a generation of players, it was only then that the impact was fully felt, with 15 years of chronic under-achievement.
Now, a Zambian team returns to Libreville to take part in the final of the Cup of Nations, with the 1993 incident central to their thoughts. Upon arrival, the team's first act was to hold a ceremony on the coast to commemorate their fallen predecessors and are looking at a victory in the final as the best possible way of honouring their legacy and bringing joy to a nation.
Conversely, on the other side of the pitch will be Ivory Coast, where for many of the players, motivation comes from an entirely personal level. The Elephants have long been a leading force in African football, but have never fulfilled what many assumed was the destiny of the 'golden-generation', to win the Africa Cup of Nations. Second-place in 2006 and a semi-final in 2008 were not bad results, but whenever there is an expectation that the title is coming home to Abidjan, the epithet 'chokers' emerges.
With the Ivorians now in the final, a better opportunity will never present itself for success at international level and there is little doubt that the side themselves are feeling the weight of previous disappointments.
En-route to the final, Ivory Coast have been relentless in their disciplined approach on the field and the rewards are clear and they've yet to concede a goal in their five matches. With a three-man midfield of Cheick Tioté, Didier Zokora and Yaya Touré, it is easy to see where this solidity is formed, as the fairly defensive minded unit help negate many opposition attacks before they even reach the defensive line itself.
For the semi-final, Toure was moved into a more attacking role, where he was expected to use his much-discussed stamina to get forward and support the front three of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho. An uninspiring 1-0 victory over Mali was the result, but it is unlikely that the final will see any great shift from this set-up that has served them so well to date. A moment of brilliance from the Arsenal wide-man Gervinho secured the win, but with clean-sheets a regular occurrence, Ivory Coast can afford to rely on a moment of inspiration from their fabled attacking unit.
Zambia, for their part, reached the final with a 1-0 victory over tournament favourites Ghana. Having dismissed Sudan with ease in the quarter-final, the match-up with the West Africans brought about a defensive shift in mentality from the previously attacking Zambians. The plan worked beautifully, with the two banks of four in midfield and defence allowing Ghana possession, but stifling their use of it. An early missed penalty by Asamoah Gyan set the tone for the Black Stars, who had yet to show any signs of real creativity in the tournament.
In the second-half, having thoroughly-restricted Ghana, Hervé Renard timed his substitutions perfectly, shifting back to the more attacking system that had served them well up to this point. With Ghana also losing three of their star players through injury and lack-of-fitness, the momentum swung in favour of those in orange, forcing the Ghanaian defence to once more show signs of frailty that have been evident all tournament. In the 78th minute, the Zambian endeavour was rewarded as the only goal fell in their favour, with the new high-pressure forcing Ghana right-back Samuel Inkoom into an error that led to the goal being scored by 21-year-old Young Boys striker Emmanuel Mayuka.
Were Ghana too complacent? That is certainly something that must be considered, but much credit must also go to Hervé Renard and his Zambian team, who have shown a discipline and tactical flexibility that has so often been lacking in African football.
The result has set-up an intriguing final, complete with valiant underdogs, star-studded favourites and personal motivations for success that in the case of Zambia lie much deeper than football. The game has the recipe of a classic and the whole of Africa will be hoping that the final is a fitting ending to what has been a fine showcase of the continent's footballing abilities.
Follow Chris on Twitter at @chris_elastico