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Feb 28, 2012

From tragedy to triumph

Goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene was eight years old in 1993 when the Zambian Air Force plane carrying the national team to their World Cup qualifier in Dakar crashed, killing what was then the golden generation of Zambian footballers. He was more than ten years away from making his international debut and 19 from being part of a new golden generation, who won the African Nations Cup and dedicated their victory to the memory of their fallen countrymen.

Most of his current team-mates were of a similar age, too young to comprehend exactly what had happened off the coast of Gabon but old enough to know that it was something that would haunt the country for many years. The horror of that April day only fully sunk in when they accompanied their football association president, Kalusha Bwalya, who escaped death because he was on a different flight from PSV in the Netherlands, to the beach closest to the crash. There it all became chillingly real.

"Most of us were very young when the crash happened. So it was good for us to go and see somewhere near where it had all happened," Mweene told ESPNsoccernet. "Something happened there. We knew we had to push ourselves and decided we would be playing for that team and we did it. Now their souls will rest in peace."

Zambia's win over Ivory Coast in the final of this year's ANC saw them claim their first continental cup and complete a journey that started with tragedy and ended in triumph. Beyond the fairytale though, is a story of grit and hard work that finally paid off for a team of foot-soldiers with few superstars.

Mweene is one of the most committed of the worker bees, having been Zambia's first choice goalkeeper since 2004. He has played in four previous ANC competitions, each time seeing his team get closer but still too far from the prize, and played an important part in the gradual improvement over the years. "In each tournament, we learnt something and soon we realised that we would have to do something different if we wanted to win," he said.

The 'something different' was not a technical thing. Zambia had a solid defence, a creative midfield and aggressive strikers. There were few big-names in their line-up (if big names are judged by who has a name recognised in Europe) but enough strength in the collective to make up for that. The difference came in their attitudes. "There was more dedication and more team spirit," Mweene said.

Zambia had welcomed back coach Herve Renaud on the eve of the tournament, after Dario Bonetti, who oversaw their qualification process, was fired less than 48 hours after Zambia booked their tickets to the tournament. Mweene said the behind the scenes activity did not distract the players in any way, claiming: "The players had all been together for a long time and most of us are based in South Africa, so it didn't matter to us. The commitment and unity we had was brilliant."

From their opening encounter, against Senegal, Zambia had a buzz about them. They shocked one of Africa's traditional powerhouses with an energetic display that saw them take a 2-0 lead inside 20 minutes. Senegal wasted opportunities to wrest the advantage and Zambia's defence continued to thwart them to set the tone for a tournament in which their never-say-die attitude dominated.

"Senegal were one of the tournament favourites and we didn't give them too much opportunity," Mweene said. The rest of the group was relatively plain sailing as Zambia overcame co-hosts Equatorial Guinea without much fuss and drew with a spirited Libyan side to qualify for the quarter-finals.

It was there that they showed their strongest hand, dispatching Sudan 3-0 to advance further than they had managed since 1996. Africa's sweethearts, Ghana, awaited but Mweene almost singlehandedly kept Zambia in the game with athletic saves, including one from an Asamoah Gyan penalty. Instead of being overawed by the man who stepped up to take the spot-kick, Mweene said he knew exactly what to do to deny him.

"I have watched these guys like Gyan play in Europe, so I know how they play," he said. "I asked Gyan if he believed the penalty was genuine and I said if it was really a penalty he would score. And I decided before he kicked that I would dive to my left." With mind games and a plan, Mweene denied the striker, who would go on to take a break from international football after the tournament because of the emotional scarring caused from having attempts saved at the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 AFCON.

The same banter is what Mweene said he used against Didier Drogba, who skied his attempt in the final. Mweene was in his element in the penalty shootout and also saved from Kolo Toure to add another big name to the list of players he has denied. Despite two hours of end to end football, in which he was on his toes all the time, Mweene said he was ready for the shootout, insisting: "When you train, it's not about 90 minutes, it's about preparing for 120 minutes so it wasn't something new to me."

Mweene may have been the only calm presence in the Zambian side that day as even the usually suave Renaud let his frustrations show - he had an explosive touchline scuffle with Davies Nkausu, after the defender let Gervinho tear towards goal and pushed the player in the chest. Mweene said the emotions of the occasion only caught up with him afterwards, when the squad returned to Lusaka.

"From the airport to the showgrounds, it was packed everywhere," he said. "I don't even think you could drive at 20 kmph because it was so full. It was a good feeling. We didn't know what we did until we went back there and showed the trophy to the people. Zambians were waiting a long time for that."

Mweene was named goalkeeper of the tournament and his team-mate Christopher Katongo player of the tournament but the former said neither of them deserved all the credit for Zambia's win: "I wouldn't take the credit on my own, it was about the collective and how we played together. It would be unfair to say it was because of any one of us."

The euphoria of that day will long remain in Mweene's memory, as will the physical rewards. Mweene was given 250 hectares of land and two herds of cattle by the Chief of the Swaka people of the town of Mkushi. He has been careful not to dwell on these things for too long though and has returned to Free State Stars in South Africa. Playing for the club is what Mweene calls his "bread and butter" football and he longs to win a Premier Soccer League title with the team, who are currently seventh in the table.

Mweene also dreams of joining the likes of Drogba and Gyan in an overseas league but is not too fussed if he is not contacted. "Maybe before the start of the next season, maybe someone will be interested," he said. Foremost in his mind is helping Zambia qualify for the 2014 World Cup. "We want to have new success," he revealed. By the time that tournament takes place, he will be 30, old enough to achieve "something bigger."

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