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Zambia Is Here For A Good Time, And Maybe Even A Long Time

RIFU, MIYAGI, JAPAN - JULY 24: Babra Banda #11 of Team Zambia leads their side out prior to the Women's First Round Group F match between China and Zambia on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Miyagi Stadium on July 24, 2021 in Rifu, Miyagi, Japan. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)
Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

For a country with precious little footballing history and an extremely poor international record before five or so years ago, Zambia enters the 2023 World Cup as one of the more intriguing debutants in the tournament. The Copper Queens (sick nickname) are the first landlocked African nation to qualify for either the men's or women's World Cup, and they did so in real style, beating three-time defending champions Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations third-place game after finishing atop their group and sneaking past Senegal in a hard-fought quarterfinal. Their triumphant AFCON came on the heels of a pair of controversial decisions (see: enemy and star sections), so finishing with the bronze medal was extra impressive.

One year before their big AFCON, Zambia qualified for their first Olympics, bowing out in the group stage without winning a game, though putting up an extremely entertaining fight. They played the Dutch in their first game and lost 10-3, before playing a hard-fought 4-4 draw with China and acquitting themselves very well in a 1-0 loss to Brazil. Those scorelines hint at what sort of team Zambia are. This year alone they have a 4-0 win, a 5-0 loss, and a 5-2 loss, and in the last calendar year they also have 4-1 and 7-0 wins. The Zambians have a talented front line, so they score a ton and get scored on a ton; fittingly, their first international game in 1994 was a 5-3 loss to South Africa.

They have lost six of their last nine matches, though most of those losses have been friendlies against better teams. They actually won the last major tournament they participated in, running the table with five wins to take the crown in the 2022 COSAFA tournament (held for teams from southern Africa). They're in a tough group at the World Cup, alongside Spain, Japan, and the plucky Costa Rica. None of this will be easy for them, but thankfully, FIFA is somehow a less restrictive organization than the Confederation of African Football, so they'll have their star. Speaking of which:

Who Is Their Star?

Their star is Barbra Banda, who will be playing in the World Cup after her shameful and outrageous exclusion from AFCON last summer over a failed "gender verification" test. Banda was supposed to lead the Copper Queens, and indeed, she was being promoted by the CAF's own social media as one of the stars to watch at the tournament. The CAF required players to have their testosterone levels checked before the tournament, and Banda was one of four players whose results came back outside of what the CAF deemed "acceptable." The confederation then claimed that Banda's exclusion was not their call, though the Zambian federation publicly called them out for their arbitrary and cruel restrictions on players under the cynical guise of protecting women's sports. None of the tests indicated that Banda was doping, so she had to sit on the sidelines and watch her teammates get third place because the CAF is applying the same broken standard of womanhood to Banda that sporting regulators have applied to Caster Semenya.

Banda got to play at the Olympics, and thankfully, she will be at the World Cup in July. When she's on the pitch, she's electric. She was the first Zambian woman to make the leap to Europe, and is easily the team's most famous player even though two of her teammates play for Real Madrid [CORRECTION: They play for Madrid CFF]. Her team may have lost by seven goals to the Netherlands on their Olympic debut, but Banda scored a hat trick in that game and then added another hat trick against China in her team's next group-stage game.

Banda is a prototypical striker, powerful and quick in the box, with a nose for goal and the ability to get a powerful shot off in tight quarters. She scores so many goals; 10 in the COSAFA tournament, two against South Africa in a friendly last year, six in the Olympics, and 18 goals in her first 13 Chinese Super League games. She's a walking bucket, and I hope she stunts on Spain and Japan and more importantly, I hope she's never ever again kept out of the team by needless and insulting blood quantum tests to determine who is exactly allowed to play women's sports.

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

One reason why Zambia is such an exciting team is that they're all so young. Banda is the star, but she only just turned 23. Midfielder Grace Chanda is the team's experienced hand and she is only 26. There's also Xiomara Mapepa, an incredibly exciting winger who is cool because she is, A) an absolute goddamn terror on the wings, B) 21 years old, and, most importantly, C) coming back to the team after getting in trouble for smoking weed in South Korea. Chanda is one of the two Madrid players, and my pick for exciting youngster is the other.

Racheal Kundananji, like Banda, is another feared bucket-getter. She racked up 25 league goals for Real Madrid in her first season with the team, including a brace on the final matchday of the season to hand Barcelona their first league defeat in 64 games. Both goals were displays of her indomitable physicality—see her burst of speed in the first and a hilarious uncalled shoulder check that destroyed a defender in the second.

Kundananji has good movement and shooting skills, especially with her stronger left foot. Dealing with her alone would be a headache for a center back duo, but when she's running alongside and in behind Banda, forget about it. I like that she has some swagger to her game as well. "The world should expect a lot from the Copper Queens," she said last week. "We are not just going to the Women's World Cup to make the numbers or just show our faces. We want to show the world the stuff Zambians are made of. We are going there to set and break some records."

Who Is Their Enemy?

Like most women's teams, Zambia is scuffling with their own federation, who is notably corrupt and withheld money from them for a long time. They're allegedly working something out there, though, so their enemy is South Africa, their primary rival for southern African supremacy. They have defeated South Africa three out of the last four times, including once in COSAFA knockout round play, though they lost the big one under controversial circumstances. In the 94th minute of a tense 0-0 AFCON semifinal, referee Lydia Tafesse called a penalty for what appeared to be a fair challenge outside of Zambia's box. This is an awful call, but the stakes and the VAR-assisted fuckup make it completely unacceptable.

Zambia had a chance to advance to the AFCON final—they'd just won a penalty shootout in the quarterfinal—and their chance was ripped away from them. The South Africans went on to win the tournament, and while Zambia acquitted themselves well with a third-place finish, they still left with a bitter taste. With Banda and with fair officiating, this could have been their year, but no. Zambia's president even made a stink about it on the international stage!

National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool

This is a slightly off-book answer, but I'm touched by the tragic story of the Zambian men's national team's plane crash 30 years ago. In 1993, the Chipolopolo were riding high, having smoked Italy 4-0 at the 1988 Olympics, secured a third-place finish at the 1990 AFCON, and won their group in the first round of qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup. Kalusha Bwalya was playing for PSV and had just been named African Footballer of the Year. Everything was going their way.

The team was flying to Senegal for a second-round qualifying match on a Zambian air force plane on April 27, 1993, which was schedule to make three refueling stops along the way. Mechanics noted at the first one that one of the engines seemed to be having some issues, though the team pushed ahead. That engine caught fire during takeoff from Libreville, Gabon, and the pilot mistakenly shut off the other, healthy engine, causing the plane to dive into the Atlantic Ocean. All 30 people aboard the flight died, including nearly the entire Zambian national team. A few players, including Bwalya, were either traveling on their own to Senegal or were home injured, though the vast majority of the team and its staff died in the crash.

The reassembled team put forth an admirable effort to finish out World Cup qualification, though they fell one point short. Months later, they took a lead into the second half of the AFCON finals, only to lose to Nigeria. Zambia would achieve their high water mark 19 years after the crash, when they shocked the continent and won the 2012 AFCON, which happened to be held in Gabon. They beat Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast team in an 8-7 penalty shootout in the final, in what is considered to be one of the best AFCON matches ever played.

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

The Zambian staple of nshima, a corn-based porridge often served with vegetables or stews, seems delicious. I've eaten similar classic dishes like fufu in Ghana and ugali in Kenya, and while they are different from nshima, they are both hearty and life-giving. However, they are not stadium foods at all, as you have to sit down and use your hand to get perfect bites. So, issuing a verdict of partial scran.

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

Beating Costa Rica and giving either Japan or Spain a real scare. Honestly, though this is their first World Cup, the Copper Queens have several world-class players and can dream for more. We also cannot forget that they spotted the Dutch 10 goals two years ago, so we have also seen the limits of how far a few great players can take them.

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