STEPHEN PHIRI, AUGUSTINE MUKOKA
Jeju, South Korea
AFRICAN champions Zambia return to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup stage after four absences with an opening Group C clash against Portugal at Jeju World Cup Stadium.
Zambia’s first appearance in 10 years, the third since the tournament was launched in 1977, comes with an even bigger responsibility. They are the continent’s hope for glory after winning the African Under-20 Cup of Nations as hosts early this year.
The junior Chipolopolo’s last appearance at the competition was in 2007 in Canada, where the George Lwandamina –mentored side reached the last 16.
Zambia have since then missed subsequent appearances after poor showing at continental championship, where four of the finalists make it to the party.
Finishing as winners secured Zambia an automatic slot at an event that attracts the world’s elite youth players chasing FIFA’s second most coveted title after the senior World Cup.
After springing to the continent’s top spot with some scintillating football on home soil, Beston Chambeshi’s side knows expectations are high.
“A lot of people expect us to do better than we did at home. We know this is our moment to show we can do it but we are not under pressure. We will take one game at a time,” said striker Fashion Sakala at a pre-match press conference.
Going beyond the Round of 16 is what Chambeshi should be targeting considering the collection of highly talented players the former Nkana star has assembled for the tournament.
The partnership of Spartak Moscow forward Fashion Sakala and Patson Daka, who is on loan to FC Liefering from Red Bull Salzburg, forms Chambeshi’s lethal attack.
But Chambeshi downplays the strength that Daka and Sakala bring to the team.
“All the departments are functioning well. I am happy with the way they played in the friendlies, especially in attack; we look sharp. I am confident because the whole team is focused and united,” Chambeshi said.
Africa Under-20 Cup of Nations golden glove winner Mangani Banda is a sure bet to stand between the sticks.
Skipper Solomon Sakala will partner Moses Nyondo in central defence while Shemmy Mayembe and Prosper Chiluya are the wing-backs in what will be a solid backline to keep the Portuguese frontline of Bruno Costa, Jose Gomes and Xande Silva at bay.
Zanaco’s Boyd Musonda and Emmanuel Banda will orchestrate play in central midfield while enterprising Enock Mwepu could be thrown to the left with Edward Chilufya controlling the right-wing.
That’s a team Chambeshi is hoping will break the jinx and make it to the final of the biennial competition. But before then, Zambia must overcome Portugal, Costa Rica and Iran on the road to the knock-out stage.
Ironically, Zambia’s best performance at the tournament was a goalless draw against Spain – who went on to win the tournament in 1999 fielding the likes of ex-Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Xavi and Carlos Marchena.
While both teams have not met at this competition, the Portuguese have a better pedigree with 11 appearances.
Portugal won the tournament in 1989 and 1991 while their last trip in 2015 ended at quarter-final stage.
Head coach Emilio Peixe was full of praise for the Zambians singling out Daka and Sakala as some of the players he has been monitoring and will be under check from his skipper, Ruben Dias.
“It will be a tough game, but I hope Zambia will let us play. We hope to leave a strong mark at the tournament,” Peixe said during a pre-match press conference.
“We know everybody in the Zambian team; we know Fashion, we know Patson. We have seen a lot of games Zambia has played, they are aggressive and strong.
Some players, I think Patson is in the senior team, but we don’t have any player at that level.”
F o r C h amb e s h i , h i s concentration is not what the Portuguese are doing but what his boys can deliver.
“I have been telling my boys how sweet it is to play at this stage,” Chambeshi said as he evoked memories of his trip to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where Zambia reached the quarter-finals.
“We are here to compete. I have never seen a united team like the one I am working with right now. The boys are organised; the players are well-motivated.”
Mangani Banda, Shemmy Mayembe, Prosper Chilufya, Moses Nyondo, Solomon Sakala (C), Boyd Musonda, Edward Chilufya, Emmanuel Banda, Patson Daka, Fashion Sakala and Enock Mwepu
The match will kick off at 07:00 hours Zambian time.