While retaining the African Nations Cup trophy was not exactly guaranteed, making the last eight was well within Zambia's reach.
The Chipolopolo together with two-time champions Nigeria were expected to progress in Group C which also comprised of Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
However, 1-all draws against Ethiopia and Nigeria coupled with a goalless draw against Burkina Faso ended Zambia's hopes of reaching the quarter-finals making them the first African champions to bow out at the group stage since 1992 when Algeria were eliminated at the group stage after winning the title in 1990.
However, it could have been different for Zambia had they played with purpose in their first two games as the country's Football Association president Kalusha Bwalya would later concede.
Kalusha told fazfootball.com that Zambia could only blame themselves for their early exit because there was no team that was better than them at this year's tournament.
"What can I say? I am sad and disappointed. We all had great expectations for this tournament. Unfortunately we have to leave at this stage," said a disappointed Kalusha. "We only have ourselves to blame. I didn't see one team that was 'superior ' to us. Zambia really didn't hit 'top gear'."
"We have to be realistic. We created a few clear cut chances but we did not turn them into goals, and on the day, if you don't score you get punished. We complicated our progression to the quarter finals. That was it. We were unlucky to exit in such a way, which can happen in Football."
Kalusha also added that the nature of the Mbombela Stadium pitch contributed to the team's poor performance. "The playing pitch didn't help matters either. By comparison, in 2012 in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon we would reach the opponents area one time and it was a goal!"
The one man though who did not disappoint in the Chipolopolo team was goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene. Africa's finest penalty stopper stood up with a vital save against Ethiopia, then Nigeria against John Obi Mikel before stepping up to take the winning kick to ensure a share of the spoils.
But for Zambia to succeed, he needed the rest of the team to come to the party which did not happen.
Most local fans believe Zambia lacked firepower upfront to overhaul Burkina Faso while others said Chipolopolo squandered their progress in the tournament from the first match when they drew 1-1 against a 10-man Ethiopian side.
"Burkina Faso and Nigeria beat Ethiopia but Zambia failed. I think this was the defining moment in qualification," said Alfred Kabeera, one of the many Chipolopolo fans in Kigali.
Other fans said Zambia's elimination was a culmination of what was bound to happen following a string of uninspiring performances in the run-up to the tournament.
Now Zambia coach Herve Renard, who assumed responsibility for the team's shocking group stage exit, insists that qualification for the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil remains the team's major challenge and that they are well on course.
"We had two objectives: to defend our title and to qualify for Brazil. I think we still have a good chance," he was quoted as saying.
"With Ghana in our (World Cup qualifying) group it won't be easy but we have started well and we can get some momentum going. We play Lesotho next away in March and then home in June with a chance for all six points, then Sudan at home and lastly Ghana away, which might be like a final," said Renard. "We intend to challenge all the way."
Zambia have six points from their first two World Cup qualifiers, with one match win awarded to them after Sudan used a suspended player.
Renard said he was confident he would stay on and anticipated few changes, saying: "We did have a few players who did not perform to their ability at this tournament but I'm standing by all of them.
"It was a painful experience but such things happen in life and we just have to learn to move on."
The Frenchman took Zambia to the 2012 Nations Cup title against expectations, their first success in the continental championship but qualification for the Fifa World Cup still eludes them.
Past Nations Cup winners (since 1980)
1980 - Nigeria
Egypt - 7
Ghana - 4
Ivory Coast - 1
Zambia - 1
Tunisia - 1
Sudan - 1
Algeria - 1
Morocco - 1
Ethiopia - 1
South Africa - 1
Congo Brazzaville - 1