In it’s 47 years of independence Zambia had never known the inside of a modern football stadium.
Until two weeks ago, the country’s national team – the reigning African champions – fulfilled its international home fixtures at stadia that was a far cry of world soccer governing body FIFA’s standards.
Konkola Stadium was the closest to come to hosting international fixtures and at worst Nkoloma, Nchanga and Arthur Davies stadia were options despite their inadequacies.
The Independence Stadium – which has hosted some of the greatest football moments in Zambia’s history – was shut in 2007 after the grand stand was razed for rehabilitations. It neither met those standards the time it was making portions of Zambia’s rich football history. Nonetheless, it hosted great fixtures of all times.
There was also the Dag Hammarkjold in Ndola – named after a UN Secretary General who perished in a plane crash while on duty from the Congo – that also was brought down in the hope of constructing another stadium for the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations. It never was and Zambia was banished from the competition that year which went on to be hosted by Kenya.
Thanks to China, the cries for at least a single decent sports facility are no more. Now, an iconic football structure named after third Republican president Levy Mwanawasa stands tall in Ndola – the Copperbelt’s administrative capital. It opened its gates for the first ever international fixture on June 9, 2012.
The stadium was erected at a cost of US $65 million with a capacity slightly over 40,000. And for the first time, the local football body – FAZ – raked in over 500,000 dollars for a single match in a World Cup qualifier against Ghana two weeks ago.
Kelvin Mutafu, the FAZ treasurer, said from gate takings alone the body raked in about K2 billion. That is minus adding such revenue as broadcasting and commercial rights for the sell-out match.
Another picturesque structure, slightly bigger in capacity is currently under construction in Lusaka, where Independence Stadium will receive a facelift.
China is spending about US $94 million on the two projects bringing their total investment in Zambia’s modern sporting infrastructure to a whopping US $159 million.
On completion of the first project, the Chinese construction company expressed delight, particularly with their co-operation with the soccer crazy southern African nation.
Anhui Foreign Economic Construction (Group) Co. Ltd, the construction company, whose Ndola project was courtesy of China’s Commerce ministry and department of aid to foreign countries, completed their assignment within 26 months.
They credit the successful completion of the project to all parties including the local casual workers who contributed immeasurable hours of hard work to deliver a world-class structure.
Kalusha Bwalya is the FAZ president, formerly the Zambian team captain, is one of the most successful players but his ascendance to the top of continental football came without a decent home ground.
The 47-year-old ex-soccer star now administrator knows better that there is nothing that can propel a team to glory than a vociferous united home fan in a conducive atmosphere.
“We had a lovely atmosphere here and winning just paid back that support that the crowd gave,” Bwalya told journalist shortly after Zambia beat Ghana 1-0 at the new stadium.
“We hope to have many happy days at this new home for the African Champions. Yes, as a sporting country we really deserved this structure and now can look forward to the completion of the other two.”
Frenchman Herve Renard guided Zambia to her first major continental title in February 2012 and believes the spectacular structure “is good and worthy of the champions.”
Incidentally, Zambian captain Christopher Katongo plays his football in China and became the first player on the international stage to score in the brand new super structure.
He delightfully notes; “I scored the first ever international goal. That is history and no one can take that away from me.”
In the midst of stern criticism from the west about their investment in Africa, China can be proud to associate with an inspiring tale of Zambia.
That tale is being appreciated not only Zambia but across African nations such as Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Angola, all of which are beneficiaries of immense support through such super sporting structures now stand tall as iconic features in their respective cities including Ndola.