Ivory Coast, looking to lay to rest the ghosts of failures past, and Zambia, looking to honor the dead from the 1993 air disaster, meet in what will be a deeply emotional Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday.
Zambia have kept their date with destiny, stunning Ghana 1-0 in Wednesday’s first semi-final to bring Herve Renard’s side to Libreville, off whose coast 19 years ago the national side perished en route to a World Cup qualifier in Dakar.
They face Didier Drogba’s Elephants, who later defeated Mali 1-0 courtesy of a brilliant solo effort by Arsenal striker Gervinho, in the Gabonese capital.
After Zambia’s stunning win over the Black Stars, Renard said: “It was written in the stars that we had to return to Gabon in order to honor the memories of the national side wiped out in 1993.”
“A team that is returning home and all of them die, is catastrophic for a country. Twelve million Zambians wanted us to go the whole way to Libreville. As soon as we arrive in Libreville, we will go to the spot where the plane crashed, not far from the stadium,” he said.
“It is imperative we play for them, for Zambia, because it is a fantastic country,” he added.
Zambia booked their ticket to the final courtesy of substitute Emmanuel Mayuka, who scored 12 minutes from time to give the Copper Bullets victory over the four-time champions.
The goal came against the run of play, with Isaac Chansa setting up the 20-year-old striker, whose shot from outside the penalty area flew past goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey into the corner of the net.
Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic refused to appear at the post-match press conference.
In his absence, assistant coach Akwasi Appiah said: “We dominated almost all the match, they had only one or two opportunities, and scored with one of them. Zambia is a huge footballing nation, they deserve to be in the final. Everyone is very sad, the majority of the players cried.”
Later, in the Gabonese capital, a moment of brilliance from Gervinho secured Ivory Coast their fifth consecutive win in this year’s competition and their place in Sunday’s climax.
The Elephants’ class and experience prevailed in an entertaining encounter set alight by Gervinho’s 45th-minute goal.
Mali had struggled manfully to keep the orange tide at bay in a frenetic first half, until Gervinho made his mark with a little help from some slack defending.
Depriving Mali back Ousmane Berthe of the ball bang on the halfway line, the Arsenal star scampered hare-like down the left wing, leaving Malian pursuers in his wake to shoot right-footed past Soumaila Diakite and into the far corner.
Mali coach Alain Giresse pounded the dug-out with his fist in frustration.
Winning coach Francois Zahoui cut a composed figure afterwards, saying: “We had to manage some difficult times, but luckily we scored just before the end of the first half.”
“I’m proud of the boys, they managed the game with calmness and patience, and a little stress. We weren’t expecting such a tough game. I’m surprised by the work [Mali coach] Alain Giresse has done with his team, hats off to them,” he said.
Giresse, an experienced coaching hand in Africa, said that reality had bitten his inexperienced side.
“We had some players missing, we tried to get along with what we had,” Giresse said.
“We almost succeeded, we could see the difference of a team with many experienced players and a developing team like ours,” he added.