Zambia’s impressive displays in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers generated genuine hope that the good times would soon be back for the 2012 African champions, and the arrival of Sven Vandenbroeck was expected to further accelerate the team’s revival.
As the Southern Africans survey the wreckage in the aftermath of yet another crushing exit from the Africa Cup of Nations, however, it is not easy to escape the conclusion that Vandenbroeck’s appointment in July actually precipitated Zambia’s stunning collapse.
Kukesi Reginaldo scored the only goal of the match just after the hour mark on Sunday as Mozambique dumped Zambia out of the running for a ticket to Cameroon 2019.
Chipolopolo never really touched the heights they reached during the World Cup qualifiers since the arrival of Vandenbroeck, whose reign kicked off with a timid display in the 1-1 draw away to Namibia in September and may now have ended with the disaster in Maputo.
Vandenbroeck’s team were woeful against their regional rivals, with most of their key performers simply failing to turn up.
Once more, there was no sign of the incisive interplay in the final third which made Zambia such an enthralling prospect during the final rounds of the World Cup qualifiers.
In fact, the Vandenbroeck reign was headed for the precipice from the off, with some of the coach’s team selections suggesting he may have been more focused on projecting the perception of a fresh start as opposed to building on the team’s strengths.
Upon taking over, the 38-year-old had the opportunity to bring in those experienced players who had been continuously overlooked by his predecessor Wedson Nyirenda and add some considerable depth to the team.
To his credit, he did bring back the likes of former captain Rainford Kalaba, Nathan Sinkala, Lubambo Musonda, Clatous Chama and Kabaso Chongo, all of whom had been restricted to the sidelines under Nyirenda.
There was a recall too for Emmanuel Mbola, only for the Israel-based left-back to fall out with the coach at the first hurdle.
However, Vandenbroeck also decided to let go of right-back Simon Silwimba, the versatile Donashano Malama, left-back Fackson Kapumbu and ageless midfielder Kondwani Mtonga, the very players who had hitherto provided experience to stabilise the team.
Instead, Vandenbroeck went about proving he could see talent where others could not, roping in Gideon Sichone, Isaac Shamujompa, Bruce Musakanya, Jackson Chirwa, Lawrence Chungu, Solomon Sakala and Luka Banda, all from the local league.
Banda, Musakanya, Chungu and Sakala had not even made the COSAFA Cup squad, while Shamuyompa had remained on the bench for the entire duration of the tournament.
Of the lot, only Chungu and Sakala made it into the team, to occupy the full-back positions, while the rest remained little more than benchwarmers.
Silwimba was only recalled to replace Sakala at right-back for the Mozambique game, a good three matches into Vandenbroeck’s reign.
There was also the penchant for unnecessary controversy, as evidenced by the decision to bench star midfielder Enoch Mwepu for the crucial tie away to Namibia, a game Zambia desperately needed to win.
Vandenbroeck himself even sounded unconvinced of the reasons why he had decided not to start the star, only bringing him on for the last seven minutes of the game.
“Because he travelled on Monday, that’s one small reason,” Vandenbroeck told journalists, as per the Lusaka Times. “He came later than the other boys but also because of the artificial pitch [we played on].
“The main reason is because of the artificial pitch and keeping the two holding midfielders, not to leave space spaces between our central defence and central midfielders.”
Zambia needed a last-gasp goal to salvage a 1-1 draw in Windhoek after what was generally a poor performance.
They were signs of recovery in the 2-1 win at home to Guinea-Bissau, with especially Chama and Augustine Mulenga showing good form.
The bitter taste of defeat would return to spoil the mood again a few days later in the reverse fixture, with Chipolopolo going down 2-1 in a further blow to their qualification hopes.
Then came the trip to Maputo, and all the misery it has come to represent, as Zambia produced an utterly disjointed display on their way out of the race for Cameroon 2019.
It has been a painful experience for the Chipolopolo faithful, and not least because of the promise of this emerging generation, and how their development would have benefited from playing at the AFCON finals.
For his part, Vandenbroeck faces a tough time convincing his employers that there have been some positives during his reign.