Forget Harry Redknapp, the English FA should look to Zambia

The phrase ‘physically impossible’ gets thrown around a lot these days. But it is physically impossible to say/write/think anything about world football this week independently of the Redknapp/Capello/Bernstein machinations dominating English football. Which is why, apologetically, this piece about Zambia’s superb achievement in winning the Cup of African Nations is framed by the context of England’s managerial travails.

As hard as it is to appreciate now, there is nothing unique about England’s current problems. Managers get sacked all the time, and almost always because their job has been made untenable by a crisis of some description. This happens in England every two to four years almost without fail, and in other places much more regularly. The ‘Harry Redknapp quandary’ is part of this too. It may appear otherwise because it feels like he’s been heir to the throne forever (he hasn’t, Roy Hodgson would have got it a few years ago and everyone wanted Big Sam when McLaren got the job). It is also completely normal for the ‘ideal candidate’ to be torn about whether or not to accept a so-called ‘dream job’ since an ‘ideal candidate’ is, by definition, one who is doing well in his current job and therefore understandably reluctant to leave it.

If that refresher of (very recent and recurring) English history isn’t enough reason to consign the current hysteria to its rightful place (it definitely isn’t, is it?), then perhaps a brief reminder of the most epochal event in Zambian football history will work.

In April 1993, a military aircraft carrying the Zambia squad and management (on their way to a World Cup Qualifier in Senegal) caught fire shortly after taking off from Libreville International Airport and ditched into the Atlantic Ocean, killing everyone onboard. Apart from two players, Kalusha Bwalya (playing for PSV at the time, Bwalya was traveling separately) and Charles Musonda (the then Anderlecht player was injured so did not travel), Zambia lost an entire squad*.

* This makes very little difference, given the scale of the human tragedy, but Zambia didn’t just lose any squad. The side that perished in the disaster was still largely that which had beaten Italy4-0 on its way to the Quarter Finals of the 1988 Olympics and was well placed to qualify for the World Cup (they were traveling to Senegal to take part in the final phase of qualification). That side was remembered (and is still remembered alongside the new champions) as its country’s finest.

The tragedy puts England’s current crisis (‘No captain and no manager four months before a major championship – What’s going on’, Baron, J.) in perspective.

The recovery, too, is a model for any Association facing a rebuilding task. In the aftermath of the disaster, Zambia’s ‘resurrected’ side made it to the final of the following year’s African Nations tournament, losing to Nigeria. The word miraculous is another that’s thrown around too lightly, in this case it’s appropriate but unfortunately because resurrections are miracles they cannot be models. The English FA, though, instead of spouting the usual, meaningless nonsense about ‘the Spanish model’, should look to the way Zambia have rebuilt since the mid-Nineties.

The resurrected team was led by Kalusha Bwalya who has since become chief of the Football Association of Zambia. Upon taking over in 2008, Kalusha insisted upon a team being built which took the best of the country’s Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 squads and got them playing together in the full team – a sort of ageless composite dream team. As a result of this model, 21-year old Emmanuel Mayuka already has 32 caps and Zambia, thanks to Mayuka’s goal, reached the final of a major international tournament.

England, I’m sure, would take that outcome – they have never reached a European Championships final (have, in fact, made it through the group stages only twice). Having reached the final, though, Zambia went and bloody won the thing. Against the favourites. On penalties.

The point of talking about Zambia in this context, then, isn’t simply to cast them as a lesson for England – they are much much more than that. Rather, it is to highlight the continual short-sightedness of the FA’s appointments. This is likely to be especially pointed this time, where an appointment needs to be made on the doorstep of a major tournament. But, as the example of Cup of Nations’ Champions Zambia, who appointed Herve Renard upon securing qualification for the CAN, shows, the manager is only one part of an Association. He might, especially in England just now, appear the only part that matters. But he isn’t; he is part of a larger, more holistic plan.

This is an edited version of a preview post I wrote for SB Nation before the Cup of Nations final. GIF courtesy of 101greatgoals.com.

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