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Zambia Learns How Unforgiving The World Cup Can Be

Mary Wilombe of Zambia post game despair after the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group C match between Spain and Zambia at Eden Park on July 26, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand.
Photo by Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Despite this being Zambia's first ever World Cup, the Copper Queens had good reason to enter the tournament with a sense of excitement and optimism.

In Barbra Banda and Racheal Kundananji, they have two legitimate ballers capable of holding their own against anyone. Evidence of the team's underrated quality came in a series of pre-tournament warmup friendlies, when Zambia lost a close match against Ireland in Ireland, earned an admirable 3-3 draw against Switzerland in Switzerland, and, most impressively, beat Germany in Germany, 3-2, right before heading off to New Zealand. (Banda and Kundananji scored a combined six goals in those three matches.) Sure, a group with Spain and Japan is tough, but with their genuinely great attacking duo, their encouraging results in the lead-up, and the freedom of playing almost entirely without expectations or pressure, surely Zambia had everything they'd need to make their World Cup debut a joyfully memorable one. Well, about that ...

Things got off to an awful start in their first game against Japan. Zambia looked nervous and unprepared, overwhelmed by both the moment and the opponent. The Japanese carved apart the Zambians, who came out with that always suicidal tactic of playing a high defensive line without getting any pressure on the ball. That allowed Japan to dump through ball after through ball over the top of Zambia's defense, and too often those passes connected and sent Japan racing free on goal. The final score was 5-0, and it easily could've been worse.

OK, so, that's one humiliating hiding to start the biggest tournament of your country's soccer history. Nowhere to go but up, right? As it turned out, yes and no.

Next up was Spain, the Copper Queens' opponent Wednesday morning. The Spaniards were coming off a dominating display against Costa Rica, the kind of performance you could only criticize by pointing out that it wasn't literally perfect. Eager to make up for their missed opportunity the match prior and really create a monument to their superiority to warn the rest of the competition about how good they are, you can imagine the Spaniards looking at Zambia the way Wile E. Coyote looks at the Road Runner. But the Road Runner is quick and clever, as are Banda and Kundananji, and the coyote's over-confidence usually works against him. It was no guarantee which team would end up the other's prey.

And in fact, Zambia actually did play much better against Spain than they did against Japan. Outside of a stretch at the beginning of the match and another at the end, the match flowed exactly where Zambia wanted to guide it. For most of the game Spain had lots of the ball but didn't really threaten with it, while Zambia found danger basically every time they booted the ball up to either Banda or Kundananji. (Banda and Kundanaji had impressive individual performances. Both powered several deep and dangerous counter attacks almost all by themselves, often while wildly outnumbered. If nothing else, those two proved yet again that they belong on the game's biggest stage.)

Unfortunately for Zambia, Spain was ruthless during those match-opening and -closing stretches of superiority, while Zambia never drew blood in the other direction. Spain came out swinging with two goals after just 14 minutes of play. After that, Zambia turned things around and enjoyed the aforementioned period of ascendancy for almost an hour. Unlike the Costa Rica match, though, Spain proved more efficient in front of goal this time, and two quick-fire strikes in the 69th and 70th minutes broke Zambia's spirit. For the last 20 minutes, the Copper Queens looked just like they had against Japan, gifting Spain endless opportunities for balls over the top that Zambia only seemed half interested in defending. The final result was familiar, but deceptively so—a 5-0 loss that easily could've been far less dramatic.

That loss, coupled with Japan's win over Costa Rica in the group's other match, means Zambia's World Cup exit is already sealed. Zambia did so well to qualify for this tournament, came into the cup on a high, but got drawn in a difficult group with two title contenders, had to play their two hardest games right at the beginning, and now have two gaudy blowouts to their name. There's still time to salvage some dignity. Costa Rica has hardly looked fearsome, and a win over the Ticas would go a long way toward getting that bad taste out of Zambia's mouth. But that's the way the World Cup goes. One day you're giddy with anticipation, dreaming of goals and upsets and a glass slipper that somehow fits perfectly, and just a few days later you're sporting a pair of black eyes, dreams dashed, sitting inside a rotting pumpkin wondering what could've been.

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