Best of 2012: Zambia's championship
Each year, the staff of FOXSoccer.com takes time to reflect on the past twelve months. This piece, reflecting on the best moments of 2012, is the first in a series that will include our choices for best goal, best manager, best team and our choice of the American Player of the Year. From all of us, happy holidays and best wishes for 2013. – JAMIE TRECKER
ZAMBIA WINS THE AFRICAN NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP
In 1993, a plane carrying the Zambian team to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal stopped for refueling in Libreville. Shortly after takeoff, it exploded and crashed into the sea off the Gabonese coast, killing everybody on board. Kalusha Bwalya, the great star of that side, was not on the plane because he played in the Netherlands and was making his own way to Dakar. He helped put together a new side and went on to become president of the Zambian Football Federation.
This year, after Zambia beat Ghana in the semi-final in Bata, Bwalya gave one of the most emotional mixed zone interviews I’ve ever seen. "We cannot lose," he said. "Because in the final there will be not just eleven players, but also eleven ghosts."
The final, against Ivory Coast, was Zambia’s first game in Libreville since the crash. On arriving in the Gabonese capital, the squad visited the beach that was the last point of land the plane had crossed before the explosion. The sand was dirty, strewn with litter. Journalists and photographers hung awkwardly around. The Zambian players turned up, a gaggle in matching tracksuits, each carrying a bouquet. There was a horrible sense that what should have been a moment of great poignancy would become tawdry. And then they began to sing a gentle, soft song. They walked out into the sea, still singing, and lay down the bouquets. The waves soon took them, scattering sodden red flowers across the bay.
The final should have been a mismatch: Ivory Coast with all their stars against a Zambia side featuring only one player who played for a top-flight side in Europe. But Zambia held on. Didier Drogba missed a penalty. It was 0-0 after 90 minutes. It was 0-0 after extra-time. Penalties. Seven players from each side scored. Gervinho, reluctant to step forward, failed. Rainford Kalaba had the chance to win it for Zambia. He missed the target. Then Kolo Toure failed. Then center-back Stoppila Sunza stepped up. Looking at the screens on the pressbox it became apparent his lips were moving; he was singing. So were his teammates in the center-circle, singing the same song they had sung on the beach. Sunzu smashed the kick home. Eleven players and eleven ghosts celebrated.
On the running track that surrounds the pitch, Bwalya stood with his head bowed. Who knows how he must have felt? All I know is that in the press-box there was barely a dry eye. The best moment of the year? That’s the best moment of sport I’ve ever covered. – JONATHAN WILSON
MANCHESTER CITY WINS THE TITLE
Manchester City only needed a win on the final game of the day, at home against lowly QPR, to take their first title in 44 years. Improbably, in the 90th minute, they were losing, and the seats started to empty out at the Etihad. Across town, Manchester United fans were already celebrating their 20th title.
Then, in the second minute of stoppage time, Edin Dzeko scored. Two minutes later, and with no time left on the referee’s watch, Sergio Aguero ran on to pass from Mario Balotelli – and scored. The Etihad erupted. The next hour was a blur. The field was mobbed, flares went off, and Roberto Mancini walked into the press conference with champagne for all.
It was not only one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen in sport, but one of the greatest moments. The best part? The trouble-free celebrations in downtown Manchester that lasted until the sun came up the next day. – JT
ALEX MORGAN TAKES THE USA INTO THE GOLD MEDAL GAME
Alex Morgan’s goal in the 123rd minute of the Olympic semifinal match against Canada powered the U.S. women’s national team into the final against Japan. Morgan rose up over Canada’s defense to head home the latest goal ever scored by a member of the USWNT, and one that will be remembered forever. In the game, the U.S. had fought back three times from a deficit against a tough Canadian side powered by Christine Sinclair. Morgan’s goal sent the USA to a rematch of the 2011 Women’s World Cup final against Japan, and solidified Morgan’s role as a star in the team. It was one of those defining moments you’ll always remember where you were watching (I was at my desk in the FOX Soccer office, of course). It’s also one that will bring up an emotional response from any U.S. fan. – KAYLA KNAPP
Andrea Pirlo’s Panenka in Italy’s penalty shoot-out against England in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. Why? Because of its timing, its conception, its sheer audacity. His teammate Riccardo Montolivo had just missed and goalkeeper Joe Hart, trash-talking each of Italy’s penalty-takers as they waited at the spot, needed taking down a peg or two. How better to do it than with a deftly struck Panenka? It humiliated Hart, piled the pressure on England, and dramatically shifted the momentum of the shoot-out back in Italy’s favor. Ashley Young hit the bar. Ashley Cole’s effort was saved. In the end, Italy were through to the semis. – JAMES HORNCASTLE
U.S.A 1-0 JAMAICA ON SEPTEMBER 11TH
There is one day above all in modern America. As a foreigner, to witness this pride manifest itself for the first time during a sporting event – that was an absolute must-win to boot – on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 made for a special night in Columbus, Ohio.
Countless flags flew, an anthem was bellowed and the subsequent silence of 20,000 spectators was so total that it took you aback. Until one lone soul, who would have been derided on any other day, decried his enduring love of country by puncturing the hush with a heartfelt screech of "We love you, Americaaa!" Thus was lit the cauldron that would overwhelm a Jamaican team that had beaten the U.S. four days prior and incite the best American performance of the year. Herculez Gomez’s long free kick was the day’s only goal, but that could hardly dim the furor. – LEANDER SCHAERLAECKENS
ROGER ESPINOZA'S DEPARTURE IN HONDURAS' DEFEAT TO BRAZIL
In the biggest match he may ever play, former Sporting Kansas City midfielder Espinoza put in the performance of his life. He assisted on the opener and scored the second in the Catrachos' 3-2 defeat to the heavily favored Brazilians at the Olympics. When the man of the match was red-carded for a foul in the 90th minute, the crowd at St. James' Park in Newcastle rose to its feet and saluted his efforts on the day – not a common reception for a player just sent off, but deserving nonetheless. He may not have led his team to victory, but he did create a memory worth cherishing for the remainder of his life.— KYLE MCCARTHY