In the lead up to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, people were more interested in the teams that did not qualify than the teams that did. Egypt, winners of seven Cup of Nations titles and the previous three failed to qualify. So did four-time winners Cameroon and two-time winners Nigeria. The 1996 champions South Africa were fresh off of hosting the 2010 World Cup, but they couldn't qualify for the Cup of Nations and neither could 1990 champions Algeria.
16 teams may have descended upon Gabon and Equatorial Guinea at the start of the tournament, but they weren't the 16 teams that most people wanted to see. In all just four of the continent's top 11 teams even qualified for its continental championship and before Equatorial Guinea and Libya could even kick off the tournament on January 21, the tournament was already being called uninteresting and a failure.
The Africa Cup of Nations may usually be one of the most exciting tournaments anywhere in the world, but it is not always easy to find on television, it has plenty of players the general public doesn't know, it is derided for being played every two years in the middle of the European club season and the continent lacks major media centers. It is never easy for the tournament to gain traction, but then the uphill battle just got steeper with so many major teams absent. The tournament was doomed.
Amid all of the pessimism and longing for what wasn't there though, an incredibly fascinating and dramatic tournament broke out. By the time the Cup of Nations came to a close in Libreville, Gabon on Sunday, there wasn't a single ill word to be spoken about the tournament and the teams that didn't qualify were long forgotten.
It didn't take long for the tournament to put to bed any doubts about whether it could entertain withouts so many marquee teams. The very first match of the tournament set the tone for the next 31 matches, thrilling the home crowd in Equatorial Guinea, but only after their fair share of agony. Equatorial Guinea hit the post twice and had a perfectly good goal disallowed in high-paced match of almosts before Javier Balboa finally notched an 87th minute winner and the tournament was on.
Gabon were not going to let Equatorial Guinea have all of the host fun though and they thought it good to top their co-hosts' moment in the sun by adding a comeback and knockout stage clincher. Trailing 1-0 in the 76th minute, Gabon got two goals to go ahead 2-1 and were on the brink of a spot in the knockout stages, but then Morocco equalized in the 90th minute. The crowd in Libreville was stunned, having seen their team lose their spot in the knockout stages at the death, but all of the stoppages in the second half gave the co-hosts one last chance. Extra time stretched into the 98th minute and then, with the last kick of the match, Bruno Zita hit a perfect 20-yard free kick that stunned Morocco and sent the partisan crowd into raptures.
The shocks and intrigue of the tournament weren't limited to the good and joyful though. Senegal entered the tournament hoping to grab their first bit of glory since the 2002 World Cup and run to the semifinals of the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations and with Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, it looked like they had a chance. The problem is that the best forward tandem in the tournament still needed nine other players and those nine other Senegal players were outclassed for 270 minutes. By the time their three matches came to an end they were without a point and the first giant had fallen in sudden, shocking fashion.
Nothing could top the shock and awe of the champions though. Without a trophy to their name or even an appearance in a World Cup, to call Zambia also-rans in the world of international football would be accurate, if not generous. They have just two players playing in Europe and count Emmanuel Mayuka and Christopher Katongo as their most famous players. They had every element of the underdog and even a little bit more than can ever be expected of a team, playing not far from where the Zambian team plane crashed just 19 years ago, killing all 18 members of what was considered the greatest team the country has ever had.
Underdog or not, Zambia looked every bit the part of champions from the very beginning. They topped their group and dispatched Sudan 3-0 in their quarterfinal, but as good as they may have looked, their tournament was set to end in the semifinals. After all, Ghana awaited them and for 80 minutes, it looked like Zambia was finally going to go out as expected. The Black Stars put Zambia on the back foot from the start and the winning goal had to come. Eventually it did, but it wasn't Ghana who scored it. Instead, Mayuka scored a gorgeous curler, stunning the Black Stars and Zambia had somehow found a way to the final.
Zambia's run to the final may have made tournament headlines, but it wouldn't touch the drama and excellence of that final match. One major upset was believable. Anything can happen in one 90 minutes match and Zambia proved it against Ghana, but it wasn't going to happen twice. Ivory Coast, with their 'Golden Generation' playing in their third Africa Cup of Nations final were not to be denied by little Zambia, only they were.
120 minutes of chances and high-paced, fantastic football couldn't separate the two sides. Fate even got involved when Didier Drogba put a 70th minute penalty well over the crossbar and shots from 12 yards away would have to decide the winner. Five shots by each side were all good, then six and seven. It was a penalty taking clinic, but then Zambia got the save they needed. All Rainford Kalaba had to do was make his penalty and Zambia would be champions, only he made like Drogba and put the ball over the bar too. Gervinho gave Zambia one more chance though when he too missed the net and this time Zambia would not be denied. With the Zambia players on their knees with their arms locked and singing together, Stophira Sunzu hit a perfect penalty to close out the tournament with a tremendous final and incredible winner.
The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations began with the talk about who wasn't at the tournament. There was no Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa or Algeria. Samuel Eto'o Taye Taiwo, Alex Song, Steven Pienaar, Mohamed Zidan and Hassan Yebda were all missing. In the end though, none of it mattered.
The two co-hosts thrilled the home crowds and favorites were shocked. Brilliant football was played and stars were made. Then in the end, the tournament saw one of the most dramatic, incredible matches in recent memory play out in its final, turning out a deserving, lovable, unexpected winner. It was mesmerizing and 22 days after the tournament of those nobody knew about began, Zambia were crowned champions of the tournament nobody will forget anytime soon.