AFTER weeks of intensive preparations, champions Zambia yesterday finally set off for their Orange 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final base in Nelspruit, South Africa, with the players confident of retaining the continental title.
The 23-man Chipolopolo, who wound up their preparatory matches against Norway at the weekend, left for the AFCON aboard a South Africa Airlink lunch-time flight from Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport in Ndola with FAZ president, Kalusha Bwalya and committee member, Pivoty Simwanza.
Before departure, the players signed autographs for some enthusiastic fans who also posed for pictures with their favourite Chipolopolo stars.
Defender Stoppila Sunzu, who is expected in England today to complete his move to Premiership side Reading from TP Mazembe in DR Congo, said the Chipolopolo had the character to defend the AFCON championship and that the team spirit was the major driving force.
Sunzu, however, said the tournament would be tough but with the kind of preparations the team had gone through, he was confident that the Chipolopolo were ready to rumble again. He emphasised on a good start to the campaign.
Goalkeeper, Kennedy Mweene said the squad knew what was at stake and that the players had been working hard to ensure a good output at the AFCON.
Having won the 2012 AFCON title against all odds, Mweene said Zambia was now a team to beat and that the squad would be ready to face the new challenges in South Africa.
"Team spirit helped us win the AFCON last year. We work for each other," the first-choice goalkeeper said.
Midfielder, William Njobvu, who missed the 2012 AFCON final due to injury, said he was happy to be back in the fold and that the Chipolopolo were eager to do Zambia proud again.
"We have the confidence to defend the title. Without the confidence, I would have stayed back," Njobvu, who last played at the AFCON in 2010, said.
Veteran defender, Joseph Musonda appealed to the fans to continue rallying behind the team as it strives to deliver at Africa's premier football competition.
Midfielder, Rainford Kalaba called on Zambians to maintain the faith in the team.
Skipper Christopher Katongo said the players had improved tremendously since the start of the preparations and that they were satisfied that within the next few days, the Chipolopolo would be ready for the AFCON challenge.
Simwanza, who is the team's deputy delegation leader to the AFCON, assured Zambians that more good things were coming from the 29th edition of the continental tournament.
"People should rally behind this team and pray for the team because more good things are coming," he said.
And coach, Herve Renard has said the Chipolopolo are now psychologically ready for the AFCON finals and that what remained was just to sharpen the frontline.
Renard said the African champions had a strong character and that he was confident the Chipolopolo would rise to the occasion at the AFCON finals which kick off this weekend in South Africa.
"In our minds, we are ready for the AFCON. You have to be strong in your mind and this squad has a strong character. I have a lot of confidence in them (players) and I know they will give me the result at AFCON," Renard said during a post-match Press briefing after Zambia drew 0-0 with Norway in the final warm-up game at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola at the weekend.
Renard said while the team wanted to finish top of Group C at the AFCON, Zambia's first task was to win the opening tie against Ethiopia on January 21.
The 2012 AFCON-winning coach, however, said the Chipolopolo needed to be cautious of the threat posed by the Walya Antelopes whom he described as a team with some skillful players.
Renard said Ethiopia held South Africa at home in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and also beat Sudan to qualify to the 2013 AFCON finals.
He predicted a tough opening match against Ethiopia but that Zambia was determined to collect maximum points from the tie.
The 2012 African Coach of the Year said his job would be to ensure the squad was efficient at the AFCON finals which will kick off this Saturday in Johannesburg.
Renard said while the players were all working hard to be in top form for the competition, the Chipolopolo needed to improve its finishing touches.
"We just need to improve our finishing. Our aim is to be ready for the January 21 fixture and my job is to ensure the team is efficient at AFCON," he said.
On the build-up to the AFCON campaign, Renard said while people were not happy with the results in warm up matches, the team's target was to be 100 per cent ready for the tournament.
"When Usain Bolt was participating at the Olympics in the semi-finals, he did not put his 100 per cent performance but he showed his real character in the final," he said.
The charismatic Frenchman also said he would maintain wearing his 'luck charm' white shirt at the 2013 AFCON finals and beyond.
Zambia will start the AFCON title defence campaign against Ethiopia at Mbombela Stadium on January 21 before tackling Nigeria four days later and play Burkina Faso in the final Group C match on January 29.
The Chipolopolo final AFCON 23-man squad has:
- Kennedy Mweene, Joshua Titima, Danny Munyau.
- Stoppila Sunzu, Hichani Himoonde, Davies Nkausu, Joseph Musonda, Emmanuel Mbola, Francis Kasonde.
- Rainford Kalaba, William Njobvu, Isaac Chansa, Nathan Sinkala, Felix Katongo, Noah Chivuta, Chisamba Lungu, Mukuka Mulenga.
- Christopher Katongo, Emmanuel Mayuka, Collins Mbesuma, Jacob Mulenga, Jonas Sakuwaha, James Chamanga.