Resurgent Chipolopolo target Afcon place
Zambia completed their FIFA 2018 World Cup campaign with another fine showing in a 2-2 draw at home to Cameroon last Saturday, and coach Wedson Nyirenda is confident his team can consolidate their resurgence in the forthcoming 2019 Africa Cup of Nations engagements.
Zambia have endured a barren spell since conquering the continent back in 2012, but the emergence of an exciting crop of young players has sparked a revival, which saw the southern Africans emerge with their reputation enhanced from a tough Group B in the World Cup qualifiers.
Two wins, two draws and two defeats saw Chipolopolo finish second behind Nigeria, with powerhouses Cameroon and Algeria third and fourth respectively. The Super Eagles advanced to the Russia showpiece.
More than the results themselves though, it is the superb displays of Zambia's emerging stars which has excited the team's followers, and Nyirenda contends the continent could be witnessing the birth of another great Chipolopolo side.
"My task when I took over was to rebuild, because the previous team which did very well in 2012 is no-longer there," Nyirenda told KweséESPN this week. "With that in mind I think we gave every other player a chance from the past team and those that have never been called before and this time I think we have created a larger pool of players for our national team."
Nyirenda is now looking ahead to the resumption of the 2018 Afcon qualifiers next March, with Zambia pooled alongside Mozambique, Namibia and Guinea-Bissau. Chipolopolo lost 1-0 at home Mozambique in the opening fixture in June, but Nyirenda is confident his new-look side can turn things around and even proceed to challenge for the title proper.
"Coming to the qualifiers beginning next year, I think we will be a big force," he added. "I think not only for the qualifiers but the finals as well. I think we are going to do a great job for the nation; we can return the cup to Zambia."
Nyirenda's started the World Cup qualifiers with a team of mostly veterans, losing the opening match 2-1 at home to Nigeria, before holding Cameroon 1-1 away. The subsequent inclusion of former Under-20 forwards Enock Mwepu, Patson Daka and Fashion Sakala, along with 23-year-old striker Brian Mwila, would then transform Zambia, with the back-to-back wins over Algeria in September sending shockwaves across the continent.
Mwepu, Daka and Sakala were the catalysts in Zambia's sensational run to the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, and their elevation to the national team has given Chipolopolo a fearsome forward line.
Mwila, meanwhile, has come in to provide some much-needed physical presence, and Nyirenda can also count on Orlando Pirates' new signing Justin Shonga in future.
With Russia-based attacker Evans Kangwa gradually returning to form in recent weeks, Nyirenda has more than enough weapons in the forward positions, and it is only in defence where concerns have been raised, particularly over the absence young talent among those who have featured so far.
Nyirenda insists that it will not be long before Chipolopolo fans start witnessing new names in defence: "I think we have a good crop of upcoming defenders but we cannot rush them, we have to be gradual. "But very soon I think the guys will be doing a great job like their colleagues in the midfield and upfront."