'A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION' - BWALYA - Saturday, January 23, 2010
Kalusha Bwalya is the Franz Beckenbauer of Zambian football.

A former captain of the Zambian national team, the most capped player and a former coach of the team; the 46-year-old now controls Zambian football as president of the Football Association of Zambian (FAZ).

On Thursday evening, in the Angolan coastal town of Benguela, Bwalya was clearly a very relieved man.

Zambia had, moments earlier, qualified for the quarterfinals of the Orange Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 1996, when they finished third and Bwalya himself was joint top scorer.

Going into their final group game against Gabon, Zambia were rooted to the bottom of Group D with just one point and needing to win to stand any chance of qualifying.

A 2-1 victory was enough to see them through and as the other group game in Lubango between Tunisia and Cameroon ended in a 2-2 draw, Zambia even finished as group winners.

"If anybody had said before the match that we would have been top of the group at the end of the day, we would have said they were from dreamland," he said.

Bwalya, who watched the game from the VIP stand in the Ombaka stadium, hugged and kissed anybody close enough to him when the referee blew the final whistle and it became clear that the team had made it through.

He was quick to point out though, that the elation he felt was not so much for himself, as for the whole country.

"I don't think it means so much to me as it does to the Zambian people and also to the coach, he has done exceptionally well, and also to the players.

"Sometimes the emotions have to come out. It's been a long time since we qualified for the quarterfinals. The last time we went to the second round was when I played and that is a long time ago."

Bwalya has been in the forefront as Zambian football endured a rollercoaster ride of success coupled with tragedy and failure.

The former striker literally shot himself to prominence in 1988, when he scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of the Italian Olympic side at the Seoul Games.

A few years later, Bwalya was the captain of the Zambian side that was on the verge of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup finals in the US.

It was then that tragedy struck as a plane taking them to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal crashed, killing the entire team and several officials.

Bwalya, who was playing for Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven at the time, was not on the plane as he was going to travel directly from Europe to the game.

Although the side managed to still come to within a point of qualifying for the finals and reached the final of the 1994 Nations Cup, which they lost to Nigeria, they did so on the back of tragedy.

Since finishing third in South Africa at the showpiece of African football, football in Zambia has failed to reach the heights it was once at, but Bwalya hopes they are close to returning to the glory days.

"We have been on this road for a long time. Yes, there has been a moment when we have been a little bit under the radar but we just hope that things are changing.

"I think the belief we have had in the team is showing. We have been saying: 'Just hang in there'.

"Nobody gave us a chance before coming here. Everybody had their favourites in this group and it was not us. But you know, we came out of this group and it is a momentous occasion for us.

"So I think it is a step in the right direction definitely. The stakes are so high today, but we have every right to defend our position as Zambia and I think we are doing so."

Bwalya, who was player coach for the 2006 World Cup qualifiers and famously came off the bench to score a winner as a 41-year-old in a match in Liberia, said he is not concerned whether Zambia plays against Egypt or Nigeria in the quarterfinals.

"There is no preferable match. We are just glad that we were able to go through. It was more important for us to find ourselves. The confidence has always been there, but we just needed the next step.

"Zambia has made the step. To be in the last eight of a tournament like the Nations Cup is very important. So whoever we play against, I am sure they will be weary of Zambia. We will respect them of course, but I think we can play against any team."