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Glorious, glorious Zambia

The team ranked #104 that turned heads around the world

China v Zambia: Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 1 Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

There was natural derision about a team ranked 104th in the world taking their place at the Olympic Games this summer; surely that berth could have gone to someone more worthy? A higher ranked team, maybe a European one, I mean, surely Germany were better than Zambia?! The attitude was a familiar one in international football and oft seen at major tournaments when teams from confederations perceived to be weaker were in action; mistakes from players somehow all the worse because of the continent they were born on.

As per FIFA, Zambia didn’t just start the tournament ranked 104th in the world out of the 167 active nations (leaving them closer to the bottom of the pile than the top), but the Copper Queens are currently ranked 12th out of all Confederation of African Football nations. Yet this was a nation that, like South Africa, Zimbabwe (and even Cameroon) before them, had upset the odds to qualify for the Olympics.

Unhappy hunting ground at the Olympics

The only time an African team had made it out of the group at an Olympics had been the African powerhouse of Nigeria in a bizarre 2004 format that saw all three teams from their group progress. Yet of the seven appearances of CAF nations at previous Games, only South Africa in 2012 had failed to score in any of their group games (Bayana Bayana broke their Olympic duck four years later in Rio).

Usually as nations battling not just the odds but their own federations, at major tournaments, African teams routinely find themselves punished at the back but refuse to lay down arms. Zambia would prove to be no exception and in their first two matches in Japan, the Copper Queens had managed to rack up as many goals as Nigeria had over nine matches in their three Olympic appearances between 2000 and 2008.

There was a devil may care attitude when Zambia took to the pitch. They had earned their place at Tokyo 2020, and they weren’t just there to make up the numbers. Rather, they wanted to show the world what they and Zambian football was all about. There was no getting away from how lax their defending had been against the Netherlands, the reigning European champions a nation FIFA ranked 100 full places above them and who had reached the World Cup final two years ago. Even against China (currently ranked #15 in the world), the defensive errors had been indefensible. Yet the team continued to shine on the ball and make their matches must-watch football.

Songs and dances should not be the only thing we notice

For some in the West, we want to see African nations score goals or find results so we can share in their moments of “collective joy”. We don’t want to comment on their flair on the ball or on their talent, but on their celebrations. We call them “colourful” and make sure they make all the highlight reels, so we can impinge on their snatched moments of joy in the most patronising ways. It’s never, “wow, there’s some fantastic talent on this team” but rather, “didn’t they do well?” For Africans usually implied but never outright stated.

Zambia, nor any of their African counterparts, want your pity. These are athletes who’ve come through qualification and earned the right to play at one of the biggest women’s football tournaments in the world, at the most illustrious global sporting event there is. They deserve your respect, regardless of scorelines. There is context to be had; the majority of the Copper Queens squad is based at home and as such are not full time, and concerted efforts had to be made to raise funds to get the team to Japan.

These are players who are playing in the biggest matches of their careers, who are determined to compete for themselves and their country. Their joy and their sorrow is their own which they allow the world to share with them. In Japan, they have made memories that will last a lifetime as they have turned heads around the footballing world.

FOOTBALL-OLY-2020-2021-TOKYO-CHN-ZAM Photo by KOHEI CHIBAHARA/AFP via Getty Images

Even as the group stage marched relentlessly on, Zambia showed their growth in their approach and found more defensive strength, cutting out some of their earlier errors. Notably pushing Brazil all the way despite having been reduced to ten, losing their first choice goalkeeper to injury, and conceding off of a direct free kick all in the fall out from one foul before the 20 minute mark.

Barbra Banda stole the show but what she did, she did with a whole team behind her as Grace Chanda and Racheal Kundananji vied to be as memorable as their inspirational captain.

This might not be the start of an enduring run in world football for Zambia, whether or not they qualify for the 2023 World Cup remains to be seen, but for one week (that felt like so much more) this summer, it was a rare honour to get to watch the Copper Queens who, in a field of known quantities, were the breath of fresh air.