A significant part of Southern Africa – the region that’s known in football terms as the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa) – is a desert. It is dry and barren even though it has produced gemstones that have drawn envious glances from the rest of the world. Some of those gems, such as Mozambique’s Eusébio, stretching the metaphor to cover that country, have shone bright for our former colonial masters. Eusébio became a legend for Portugal, and South Africa’s Stephen “Kalamazoo” Mokone is more revered in the Netherlands than in his home country.
Not only did Kalusha Bwalya have a distinguished career in the Netherlands, he has led Zambian football at all levels – as captain, coach and now as its football association (FAZ) president. Bringing life where there has been death is nothing new to “King Kalu”. He led Zambia’s resurrection after the 1993 air disaster, which resulted in Chipolopolo losing its most talented generation when the national team’s aircraft crashed in Gabon. Fortuitously, Bwalya was in the Netherlands playing for PSV Eindhoven, with plans of joining the team later in Senegal.
A new team was quickly assembled and it came close to qualifying for their first ever World Cup, but they lost in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 to Nigeria after a fairytale run. There was more than a hint of poetic justice when Zambia won the Afcon in Gabon in 2012. As FAZ president, Bwalya was there to ensure those fallen heroes were laid properly to rest. But there has been no time for Bwalya to rest. A year after lifting the Afcon, Chipolopolo crashed out in the group stages of the 2013 edition in South Africa. Zambia then failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, like the other 13 nations – Angola, Comoros, Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe – that make up Cosafa. Only two nations from the region – South Africa and Angola – have played in the World Cup.
“We don’t want such things ever happening again in our lifetime,” Bwalya said. “In Russia (in 2018) and Qatar (in 2022), we should at least have one team from our region participating.”
Perhaps Cosafa nations fare poorly because clubs from the region have failed miserably in continental football. The region has claimed only three club titles – Orlando Pirates’ Caf Champions League title in 1995; Power Dynamos of Zambia’s victory in the Africa Cup Winners’ Cup, now called the Caf Confederation Cup, in 1991; and Kaizer Chiefs’ triumphs in 2001 in the same tournament. It has produced a paltry seven finalists in both these tournaments.
This year, the region will have no representatives in the group stages of the Champions League, unlike last year when the Buccaneers reached the final only to go down to Egyptian giants Al-Ahly. Bwalya has an idea of how to fix this problem.
“I am in favour of a club championship between Cosafa members, something like the League of Nations that Europe has proposed,” he said. “That should be agreed upon. It’s a question of the stakeholders sitting down to see how we can move forward, so that we can come to a situation where we could see Nkana Red Devils against Chiefs, for example, and move in this direction. We should find time for this, just so we have something different, and then educate our fans so they can look forward to such games. There should be an appetite from our fans so that we pack the stadium when our team is playing against a team from another country. There should be one week where we can play such games, like a Fifa date of our own.”
Bwalya, who sits on the committees of both Fifa and Caf, is in a good position to push for such a tournament. But politics in the region could be a stumbling block. South Africa, the financial powerhouse in the region, would need to buy into the idea for it to work. The country tends to look at not only the region but the continent with disdain. Chiefs once withdrew from the Confederation Cup, and this year they had to think twice about participating; in the end they were only persuaded by the three-year ban Caf handed them for pulling out of the tournament in 2005. During the African Nations Championship (Chan) earlier this year, Bafana Bafana coach Gordon Igesund had to fight for clubs to release their players in a tournament the country was hosting as it didn’t fall under the Fifa calendar.
National pride didn’t prompt those teams to release players. It will take some doing to convince them to form a Cosafa “Champions League”.
“I think that while we look at the political unity, we should look at the sporting quality,” Bwalya said. “That’s more important than politics. Everyone is involved in football so that they can see their countries doing well, otherwise we will keep lagging behind. That’s not what the Cosafa region wants – we want to be winners. Bafana Bafana in 1996, Zambia in 2012, but if you look at the years in between, it’s too long. If you calculate from 1996 until 2013 how many Southern African teams have been in the semifinal or final of the Champions League or the Africa Cup of Nations, then you see that it’s been bad. Those facts don’t lie. It’s the truth. It says bad things about the standard of our game. It is in the best interest of the region for all of us to do well.”
Bwalya cannot transform this desert into a dense forest on his own. He needs help to plant seeds throughout the region to enjoy the shade they will one day bring as tall trees.