Zambia, Ahly defy odds to conquer African football
Zambia and Egyptian club Al-Ahly defied the odds this year to lift the most prized silverware in the African football trophy cabinet.
Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) won the Cup of Nations for the first time in Libreville just a few kilometres from where a military plane plunged into the sea and claimed the lives of almost all the 1993 Zambian national squad.
Ahly extended a record haul of CAF Champions League titles to seven after playing all but one home match behind closed doors and overcoming the huge disadvantage of no competitive domestic football since last February.
It was a dismal year for Cameroon and Egypt, winners of 11 Cup of Nations titles between them, as both failed for the second consecutive time to qualify for the tournament.
Cape Verde Islands, a nation of just 500,000 people, eliminated Cameroon to secure a first Africa Cup appearance, but the Central African Republic failed to make the 16-nation cut despite stunning Egypt.
Africa experienced little success at international level with Egypt, Gabon, Morocco and Senegal failing to collect any football medals from the London Olympics and Ahly coming fourth at the Club World Cup.
There was sadness at the death of 58-year-old former Cameroon midfield magician Theophile 'Doctor' Abega, a key figure in the first Cup of Nations title won by the central African state 28 years ago.
Coaches were hired and fired with alarming regularity. Belgian Eric Gerets arrived in Morocco with an impressive CV but could not raise the Atlas Lions to a higher level and was dumped after a defeat in Mozambique.
Off the pitch, Cameroonian Issa Hayatou is set to extend his 25-year reign as CAF president next March after Ivorian rival Jacques Anouma was barred when a statute change limited the race to executive members holding voting rights.
Bungle-prone South African officials created unwanted headlines as the year closed with five, including national association president Kirsten Nematandani, suspended amid claims of match-fixing during pre-2010 World Cup friendlies.
"It was written in the stars," said emotional French coach Herve Renard after pre-tournament outsiders Zambia pipped firm favourites Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties in the Cup of Nations final following 120 goalless minutes.
Renard admitted his team of dogged figthers captained by striker Christopher Katongo was not the best in Africa, but no opponent could douse the spirit of the supremely motivated and tactically disciplined Zambians.
Defeat left Didier Drogba, who blazed a second-half penalty over the bar, and other Ivorian veterans like Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora wondering what they had to do to succeed after being unbeaten in six games and not conceding a goal.
It was the fourth consecutive Cup of Nations that the Elephants entered as the team to beat and the second time they had featured in a goalless final only to loss the shootout.
Ahly experienced a bitter-sweet year with 74 supporters killed in post-match Port Said rioting last February after the Cairo Red Devils suffered a rare league loss to local club Al-Masry.
Egyptian authorities reacted by suspending domestic championship and cup football, leaving Ahly to play friendlies at home behind closed doors and in Gulf states before CAF fixtures.
After eliminating Saint George of Ethiopia and Stade Malien of Mali in qualifiers, Ahly topped a group including TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Berekum Chelsea of Ghana and Cairo neighbours Zamalek.
Victory over dogged Sunshine Stars of Nigeria in a multi-goal semi-final preceded a 1-1 first-leg draw at home to bitter, decades-old rivals Esperance from Tunisia in the two-leg decider.
But Mohamed 'Gedo' Nagy and Walid Soliman scored before and after half-time to give Ahly control in Tunis and all defending champions Esperance could muster was a late Yannick Ndjeng goal to leave the Red Devils 3-2 overall victors.
After defeating Sanfrecce Hiroshima from Club World Cup hosts Japan, Ahly fell 1-0 to eventual champions Corinthians of Brazil, but could not recapture the semi-final form when losing 2-0 to Mexicans Monterrey for third place.
The second-tier CAF Confederation Cup delivered a shock winner in AC Leopards from Congo Brazzaville, who drew away and won at home against Djoliba of Mali in a tight climax.
It was the first CAF club title for the central African country since 1974 and the victims of a Leopards squad without big-name players included former winners CS Sfaxien of Tunisia and defending champions Moghreb Fes of Morocco.
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