The Post Newspapers Zambia
By Wakwe Dembe on Sunday 31 March 2013, 14:00:00 CAT (1321 Reads)
You knew the moment sports minister Chishimba Kambwili delivered his win-or-else directive to the national soccer team ahead of their 2014 Brazil World Cup qualifier against Lesotho in Maseru last Sunday that he was tempting fate.
And so it turned out. After 90 minutes of much huffing and puffing, Herve Renard's men, African champions just 14 months ago, could only manage a 1-all draw in yet another insipid performance that continues the team's slide from glory.
The result, against a team ranked 130 places below Zambia on the current FIFA rankings, left the fans baying for the Frenchman's blood and Kambwili threatening to drop the entire team into an acid tank. Well, in a manner of speaking.
This was the eighth game since the 1-0 victory over Ghana at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola last year that Zambia had failed to win. In that period, they have lost to Saudi Arabia and Tanzania in friendlies and drawn the rest, among them, the three games at the January African finals in South Africa where they surrendered the title they won in Gabon last year.
Kambwili called the result 'rubbish', threatened to dissolve the team, withdraw government funding to the team and take Zambia out of international football to reorganise.
One fan joked that Renard (fox in English) had now been so thoroughly sussed out by the opposition he had resorted to witch-craft by relying on his 'magical' white shirt for results, his men seem to suddenly have lost the ability to produce on the field.
It's hard to argue against that suggestion when the coach makes some of the decisions he did in Lesotho. Starting with Stoppila Sunzu at centre half was certainly puzzling, given the player's well-publicised knee issues. On more than one occasion, the towering defender was seen grimacing and trotting around rather gingerly.
It was clear Renard had taken a huge gamble fielding the TP Mazembe giant. Apart from his niggly knee, Sunzu has spent more of his time in recent weeks on intercontinental flights in search of a contract with European clubs than he has done on the treatment table or practice field but Renard persisted with him for the entire 90 minutes.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was Sunzu's poor back-pass to Mweene that created the circumstances that led to his dismissal in the 53rd minute.
Lesotho's lively Mojela Letsie latched on to the loose ball and was racing towards the Zambian goal when Mweene run out of his area to challenge him and a fine job he did too of bumping the attacker off his stride, WWE-style.
Out came the inevitable red card and off he trudged for an early shower, arms raised apologetically as he walked off to the applause of the supportive travelling Zambian fans and even louder ironical cheers from the local fans who sensed an advantage.
Renard's reaction was to pull off Fwayo Tembo, returning to the team after two years, and hand substitute goalie Joshua Titima of Power Dynamos his World Cup qualifying debut.
Even though short-handed, Zambia were still able to cause Lesotho some anxious moments, notably in the 66th minutes when Mbesuma's formerly dreadlocked head - now much shiner and more reflective of his maturity- crashed the ball against the upright.
It was a rehearsal for what was to come nine minutes later when the Orlando Pirates man found the back of the net from Isaac Chansa's set-piece.
Bewilderingly for the fans, Renard beckoned Mbesuma to the bench soon after to replace him, not with a defender - if the idea was to defend the lone goal - but with a midfielder, William Ndhlovu, who promptly went missing.
You knew then that, even with fewer than nine minutes to play, Zambia, having survived a series of scares up to that point, were in for a testing period without their safe pair of hands and the only player capable on finding insurance goal needed to tie up the points.
Freed from the burden of having three men assigned to mark the now departed Mbesuma, Lesotho were able to force matters with their numerical advantage and got their well-deserved reward with just over a minute to play.
Again, the central defenders were nowhere near their man when Litsepe Marabe raced into the box and let fly from the edge of the box, beating substitute Joshua Titima all ends up. It's safe to imagine Mweene would have kept that one out.
You could hear the cheers all the way from Ghana as the Black Stars warmed up for a game they would go on to win 4-0 against Sudan to reduce Zambia's advantage at the top of the group to just the one point with seven.
With a vastly superior goal difference over Zambia (six), that return match in Accra in September takes on a whole different complexion. But then again, it may not even come to that.
Zambia have not won a game in eight outings. There is no guarantee they will start now, with Kambwili adding to the pressure and the core of the team from that historic triumph in Gabon looking more and more uninterested in a trip to Rio.
It may well be that come September, Renard's men will have been reduced to merely fulfilling a fixture, having arrived in Ghana by ship, if Kambwili keeps his word.
Renard lays part of the blame for this state of affairs on TP Mazembe, the DR Congo side that supplies more than half of the Chipolopolo side, saying the club has worn out the players. Other reports suggest the contrary; that Sunzu, Himonde, Kalaba, Sinkala, Sakuwaha are so off-form they are getting little game time.
Whatever the truth, the fact is that this is not the same team it was 14 months ago when its sparkling counter-attacking football swept aside the best on the continent to clinch Zambia's first-ever continental crown.
Now it looks like a team playing from memory. Apart from the out-of-sorts central defensive pair of Himonde and Sunzu, skipper Christopher Katongo looks unrecognisable from the man who terrorised defences at the CAN 2012.
Renard seems to deploy him more in the hope that he will suddenly rediscover his form rather than the assurance that he will deliver.
Even Kalaba has faded badly. Misplaced passes and running into dead-ends are becoming more his thing than the clever defence-splitting through-ball or long, perceptive switch-over pass he's known for.
Renard had options with Chisamba Lungu, Mukuka Mulenga and Emmanuel Mayuka on the bench but he elected to leave them there. Even leaving Fwayo Tembo on the pitch would have made a lot more sense than withdrawing him. He carried a credible threat with his close control and trickery around the box.
Renard will look for excuses once again, but it will not be lost on even the least football literate of fans that he made the wrong decisions. Not for the first time.
And the damage may now be too big to repair with three games to go and Ghana chomping at the bits as they gear up for that September game.