Nkana FC's uphill climb
If Zambia's Nkana FC do not beat Zamalek in Cairo this Sunday, it will be five years since a team from their country last participated in the group stage of the CAF Champions League. That may not sound too serious, but remember that over that span Zambia's national side were crowned continental champions at the African Nations' Cup in 2012, so the lack of similar success for Zambia's clubs is concerning, especially when reflecting on the high road Nkana have taken so far.
From the outset, the Zambian champions have been climbing uphill. They lost their opener 2-0 against minnows Mbabane Swallows, who have never been past the preliminary round of this tournament, and the manner in which Nkana went down raised eyebrows. They were totally dominated by the opposition, their defence was opened up, they were careless, lucky to escape conceding a penalty and they squandered at least three clear goal chances, two by midfielder Kelvin Mubanga.
It was as rude a wake-up call as there can be and even the CAF thought so. In their preview of the return leg, the continent's organising body said Nkana had a reputation to save after going down to the unfancied Swazis and Nkana took their time rising from their slumber. On their home turf in Kitwe, they conceded the first goal to leave their supporters stunned.
When the possibility of bowing out of the competition became a stark reality, Nkana finally responded. Ronald Kampamba's brace put them in front, but not in a position to go through. It was only when December signing Simon Bwalya stormed to a hat-trick that their position in the next round was secure. The three goals were the first Bwalya netted since his acquisition and proved correct what club president Ken Mwansa predicted at the time of his signing.
"Simon can withstand the pressures of the midfield in the Champions League," Mwansa said. "He has experience at this level." Bwalya's previous club, Power Dynamos, took part in the 2012 version and lost in the first round qualifiers to the DRC's TP Mazembe, a club against whom most oppositions learn something.
Having progressed from the preliminaries, albeit in the most difficult fashion they could muster, Nkana would have been pleased to be paired with Kampala City Council in the first round. The Ugandans have played in the second round once, in 2009, but have never featured in the group stage.
The first leg of the tie was at home and Nkana were slow off the starting blocks again. They were held to a 2-2 draw as their defence was again described as worrying. The two blows Kampala FC struck away from home ensured that the advantage lay with the Ugandans in the return leg. Kalusha Bwalya, the Zambian FA president, hid any fury he may have had by simply saying Nkana "knew what they had to do," in Uganda.
History, at least, was on Nkana's side. They went to Uganda having not lost there in 20 years. Again, Bwalya was the man who set the tone. He scored the first goal, but five minutes into the second half, the Ugandans were level again. Kampamba had an opportunity from a free kick, but it was punched back into play for Christopher Munthal, who sealed Nkana's second round spot with a clean strike.
Their relief would soon have turned to anxiety when they saw who they were up against in the second round of qualifying: Zamalek. Nkana have played the Egyptian giants before and lost. The memory of that will not be too fresh because it was a dozen years ago, but it was at the same stage of the competition. In 2002, Zamalek won the first fixture 2-0 at home before drawing 1-1 in Zambia.
This time the draw has come first and Nkana will want to make sure it's not followed by defeat. But they'll have to overcome odds again and a Zamalek side that is filled with determination. "We are in a good position to reach the last eight," their coach Ahmed Hossam has declared.
Zamalek, along with their Cairo rival Al-Ahly, have asked CAF to move the games from Gouna back to their home cities even if they do not allow supporters into the ground because of the political situation. "It will be very difficult for us and for Ahly to play in Gouna due to the hot climate and the bad condition of the pitch," Hossam said. "It will be better to play in Cairo, even without supporters, than in Gouna."
Nkana may be less concerned with the venue of the game than whether they can snatch a third rabbit out of a hat again. Bwalya, Simon that is, is confident they can. "I believe we will carry the day," he said. But then, considering what he has done in the competition so far, he would say that, wouldn't he?