Nelspruit, South Africa: Zambia have history against them as Herve Renard’s team begin the defence of last year’s surprise Africa Cup of Nations title-winning campaign against Ethiopia on Monday.
If they succeed in walking off with the title again on February 10, they will become only the fourth country in 28 editions to claim back-to-back crowns.
In Gabon/Equatorial Guinea 12 months ago, they mocked their underdog status by marching to the final, where they upset hot favourites Ivory Coast in a marathon shoot-out.
Renard’s band of heroes secured their place at the 2013 finals with a qualifying success, again on penalties, over Uganda.
The squad available to Renard in South Africa is stronger this time around and the dashing Frenchman is upbeat about pulling off another cup coup.
Classy midfielder Rainford Kalaba has recovered from a groin injury, enabling the coach to choose from a full-strength squad with goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, defender Stoppila Sunzu and captain and striker Christopher Katongo other key figures.
And he will be anxious to bag maximum points against Ethiopia at Mbombela Stadium in this north-eastern city given that powerful Nigeria and Burkina Faso lie in wait in Group C.
“The first game against Ethiopia is very important — it is crucial that we start the tournament with a win just as we did last year,” Renard said.
“A lot of pundits do not believe we can win the title again and do not want to take risks with their predictions. It is easier to say Zambia will never win the Cup of Nations again.
“Should we fail to retain the trophy, it simply means another team was better than us. However, it will be very difficult to beat this Zambian team.”
Renard reacted to friendly losses against Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Angola and goalless stalemates with Morocco and Norway by reminding doubters that the build-up to the 2012 Africa Cup was hardly inspiring either as Zambia were held by minnows Namibia and a depleted South Africa.
Ethiopia represent something of an enigma. The Walias Antelopes are making their Nations Cup return after a three-decade absence, and they achieved it in the strangest of fashions, conceding five goals in a qualifier before going through on away goals against Sudan.
In a curious coincidence, the last time Ethiopia appeared in the African showcase 31 years ago they also came up against Zambia and Nigeria, losing to both in Libya.
Coach Sewnet Bishaw inherited one of the hottest national coach seats in Africa with 15 occupants during the past decade, including Scot Iffy Onuora, who was sacked for telling reporters he had to clear grazing cows before training sessions.
Reflecting on Ethiopia’s appearance in South Africa, Bishaw said: “We worked really hard to qualify and people should appreciate that. We cleared difficult hurdles in Benin and Sudan and will not make life easy for any opponents.
“Hard work and unity are our strengths. We succeeded because of intense training and a high level of discipline. I just hope we can learn from some of the silly goals we conceded in Khartoum.”
In all, 17 of his 23-man squad are drawn from Ethiopian champions Saint George and runners-up Dedebit, while the star of the team is Egypt-based striker Saladin Said, who has a knack of scoring spectacular goals.