Football: Zambia's burden of national desire: Nick Harling on a revival climaxing in tomorrow's African Nations' Cup final

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The Independent Online
LESS than a year after the ambitions of Zambia's national side were wrecked in a plane that came down off the coast of Gabon, the successors to the 18 players who perished have the opportunity tomorrow to provide a fitting memorial. So, too, does Ian Porterfield, the man chosen to resurrect the country's football at a time when his career was probably at its lowest ebb.

For Porterfield, success in the African Nations' Cup final against Nigeria in Tunis would represent a significant individual triumph just 14 months after being informed by Ken Bates that he was no longer Chelsea's manager. But should Zambia become African champions for the first time it would be nothing short of miraculous, coming in the wake of a tragedy so grave that it cost the national squad all but its handful of players who were based in Europe.

The situation is reminiscent of 1958, when eight Manchester United footballers died in the Munich air disaster three months before a hastily reconstructed team reached the FA Cup final only to lose to Bolton Wanderers.

Yet it is hard to imagine that Porterfield will settle for anything less than victory even though the competition favourites, Nigeria, are World Cup finalists, coached by another respected European, the Dutchman Clemens Westerhof.

Since his arrival on the recommendation of John Fashanu last June, Porterfield's job description has changed slightly from that of general manager/technical director to national team coach but the responsibility remains largely the same. 'The idea was to give them a blueprint, to set things up in the right direction,' he said. 'They didn't have any continuity before. All they had were ideas picked up from other countries. I did my little bit and they asked me to stay.'

The plane tragedy in April last year did nothing to reduce the weight of expectation on the newcomer. In no way was their plight regarded as an excuse for a controversial World Cup exit in Morocco, the repercussions of which are still rumbling on. Neither was the sense of disappointment at not qualifying for a first appearance in the finals any less acute for the enormous handicap. 'There's incredible pressure,' Porterfield said. 'After the crash they set terrifically high standards. They are so high they feel they have to maintain them. They expect to win.'

It was to Porterfield's initial advantage that Zambia, unlike so much of Africa, is largely English-speaking. Not that he would have had any misgivings had it been different. ' 'The ball' and 'Pass it' are just about the same in any language.' The days of African footballers taking to international fixtures without boots may be long gone but Zambia's early games in Group C endorsed Porterfield's impression of the players' capacity for extraordinary naivety. But that they can also, according to him, be 'fast learners, capable of catching up quickly' was borne out by the manner in which they took Mali apart in Wednesday's 4-0 semi-final win which was helped, admittedly, by eccentric goalkeeping. Zambia have also yet to concede a goal.