[AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS] Zambia and Mali will be underdogs when they face Ghana and Ivory Coast, respectively, in the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations,
but both teams, coached by Frenchmen, enter the game full of confidence. The Chipolopolo, Zambia's team of no-names, is seeking its first appearance in the final since 1994, while Mali, led by
Barcelona's Seydou Keita, is looking to bring some joy to their strife-ridden nation.
Zambia, which beat Sudan, 3-0, in the quarterfinals, last reached the final in 1994, a year after virtually the entire national team was killed in a plane crash. It has an admirer in Ghana veteran Sulley Muntari.
"It's going to be a very difficult game," he said. "No one expected Zambia to go that far. They are not just lucky to be in the semifinals, they play very good football."
Zambia coach Herve Renard was the Ghana assistant in 2008 when the host Black Stars fell to Cameroon, 1-0, in the semifinals. This time he wants to go to the final.
"It was always our ambition before the start of the tournament to get to the semifinals of this competition," the Frenchman said, "but now we want to go further."
Renard, who sent home star Clifford Mulenga for breaking the curfew, says team chemistry is strong. The coach says his players are underrated because they are not playing in major leagues like the Ghana and Ivory Coast stars.
Indeed, players like Emmanuel Mayuka (Switzerland), Christopher Katongo (China) and Rainford Kalaba (Democratic Republic of Congo) are scattered at clubs around the world. Others play at clubs in Israel, Russia, South Africa and Sudan.
“I have a good base of players who can deliver the result," says Renard. "I told my players we have a few days to go and they have to sacrifice for the country and make all Zambians proud.
Mali, which has finished fourth on three occasions in the last 20 years, benefits from the Keita's experience and a corps of 14 players based in France. And its coach, former French star Alain Giresse, is one of the best coaches working in Africa.
Giresse credits Keita's leadership in helping get the Eagles to the final four with a shootout win over co-host Gabon, Giresse's former team.
"His involvement is the same as with Barcelona," said Giresse. "He is willing to defend and he is here as a leader."
Keita has called for peace in northeastern Mali, where rebels have attacked towns around Timbuktu.
"As a coach," said Giresse, "you have to be very aware of what your players feel, and when Seydou spoke about the problems facing Mali, he was doing this for the whole team. I think he was right in doing what he did, and it would be wonderful if soccer teams could change things, but as they can't, it is right that they call on those who can change.