Zambia: Can Daka, Mwepu and Sakala lead revival of national side?

3 weeks ago 356
Leicester striker Patson Daka, Brighton midfielder Enock Mwepu and Rangers forward Fashion SakalaZambians Patson Daka, Enock Mwepu and Fashion Sakala all moved to England or Scotland in the close season

After waiting nearly 30 years to see one of their countrymen score in the Premier League, Zambian football fans then only needed wait a fortnight to see another player hit the back of the net.

A flourish it may have been but it also indicated that a country whose national team fortunes have slumped of late can look forward to a far brighter future.

For Leicester City striker Patson Daka and his close friend, Brighton midfielder Enock Mwepu, are lighting up the Premier League like no Zambian before.

The nation was one of Africa's most consistent sides in the 1990s before becoming shock African champions in 2012 but there has been a steady decline since.

The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) will be absent from January's Nations Cup once more, having failed to reach the biennial finals since 2015, while they are likely to exit 2022 World Cup qualification this week.

Nonetheless, there are hopes that a Zambian football rebirth is just beginning.

Hitting the heights

"Going forward, if we can all keep doing the same and do better in these leagues, I think Zambia will be one of the biggest teams in Africa," Mwepu, 23, told BBC Sport Africa.

"We really had big hopes for the 2022 World Cup, so it's unfortunate. Hopefully, we can contest at the World Cup going forward."

Zambia have never qualified for a World Cup but have shone on the international stage once before, when reaching the knock-out stages at the 1988 Olympic football tournament.

That run included a stunning 4-0 victory over Italy, with Kalusha Bwalya scoring a hat-trick.

The former player, coach and president of Zambian football is encouraged by the future, especially with Fashion Sakala also impressing in Scotland since he joined Rangers in the off-season.

"If a national team is going to be successful, it has to have a very good backbone," Bwalya, the 1988 African Footballer of the Year, told BBC Sport Africa.

"Patson and Mwepu are already there, while Fashion can play on the left and right, so all you need is a solid goalkeeper and strong defence for the team to function."

After impressing at Red Bull Salzburg, Daka has continued his goalscoring form in England where he not only scored against Manchester United in the league but also hit four goals in one Europa League game.

Sakala, meanwhile, recently netted hat-trick for Rangers while Mwepu struck at Liverpool with, suitably for a man nicknamed 'The Computer', a cleverly-calculated strike.

Zambia players celebrate winning the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations in 2017Enock Mwepu (far right) helped Zambia to Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations glory four years ago, alongside Patson Daka and Fashion Sakala

Daka, Mwepu and Sakala have an excellent foundation to build on given they were key to Zambia winning Africa's Under-20 title for the first time in 2017, with the trio scoring eight of the team's 13 goals during the tournament.

They heavily contributed again later that year, scoring eight of Zambia's 12 goals as the team reached the quarter-finals of the Under-20 World Cup, knocking out none other than Germany in the round of 16.

"We have come together as friends and tried to always inspire and encourage each other," says Mwepu.

"I see very young, energetic guys who are hungry to achieve more. This will be very good for our nation. We have come to realise that this is a time that we can put our nation on top."

Talent in Zambia 'enormous'

Sakala is receiving high plaudits following his start to life at Rangers - meeting his country's presidentexternal-link - while Bwalya thinks Daka is "made to play in the Premier League".

"Patson plays off the shoulder of the defenders, is very quick and an all-round finisher," the former PSV Eindhoven striker explained.

"He's still got time on his on his hands and will learn a lot from guys like Jamie Vardy. He's never been at a better school or a better club to learn."

Bwalya argues that Daka, alongside Mwepu and Sakala, is "laying the foundations" for the next generation of Zambian players.

"Talent is enormous in Zambia," he added. "This will only grow the enthusiasm and the love for football.

"We have kids in Zambia looking at these boys performing at this high level, and they think they can be the next Patson Daka or Mwepu."

Patson Daka celebrates scoring four goals for Leicester City against Spartak MoscowDaka was the first Zambian to hit a hat-trick in major European competition (excluding qualifiers) against Spartak

The duo are also ensuring that both Leicester and Brighton have some new global fans, even in a country where many follow leading English sides such as both Liverpool, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs.

"Everybody has adopted a second club and the viewing figures for Leicester and Brighton have probably tripled, even quadrupled," former Zambia FA official Ponga Liwewe told the BBC.

"This is no surprise as this is an issue of national pride. The number of Leicester and Brighton tops you see around Lusaka has noticeably increased. For the first time, two Zambians in the Premier League are making a great impact."

Zambian players have previously struggled to do in the English top flight, with Emment Kapengwe and Freddie Mwila becoming trailblazers when they joined Aston Villa in the late 1960s.

The pair made just four league appearances between them, while Collins Mbesuma featured four times for Portsmouth between 2005 and 2007.

He failed to score a Premier League goal, just like his compatriot Emmanuel Mayuka who made 16 league appearance - but only one start - for Southampton over three years prior to his departure in 2015.

Depth of national squad questioned

Kalusha Bwalya (right) lifts the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 2012Bwalya (right) was FA president when Zambia won the Nations Cup in 2012

Even though he believes that the emergence of Zambia's 'British trio' promises plenty, Liwewe - the son of legendary Zambian commentator Dennis - believes a note of caution needs to be sounded.

"If you take these three players out of the equation, there is not much more to give hope that Zambia can challenge the likes of Egypt, Morocco and the west African countries," he opined.

"It is a question of whether there is enough depth. You have this huge gulf between the three stars now making their mark in England and Scotland and the rest of the team.

"But the belief is that they could set the stage for Zambia to return to the levels that they once did in the African game and even the world game, where they had an impact at the 1988 Olympics."

To do that, Zambia will have to improve on recent displays and hope their next qualification campaigns come at a time when Daka, Mwepu and Sakala are ready to translate their sterling promise and youth form onto the senior game.

"It is our time to shine," rallies Mwepu. "I believe we will go a long, long way."

Reporting by Piers Edwards, Mimi Fawaz and Rob Stevens.

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