This summer, after a tumultuous three decades fighting for a place in Africa's women's football landscape, the Zambia women's national football team will be competing in their first ever FIFA Women's World Cup tournament. The Copper Queens will be one of four representatives from Africa alongside fellow debutants Morocco and CAF heavyweights Nigeria and South Africa. As the first representatives for Zambia in a men's or women's senior World Cup, this young group of stars enter the tournament with an exciting blend of talent, experience, and drive.
Zambia lining up prior to their match against Brazil at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics | Photo by Buda Mendes for FIFA
Zambia have a very interesting history when it comes to qualification for major world tournaments. Their first big intercontinental tournament was in 1995, when Africa’s continental competition, the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON), was a single-bracket tournament with just 8 teams. Zambia were knocked out of that 1995 tournament by a 11-5 aggregate loss at the hands of South Africa, a loss that would end up being their last WAFCON match for another 19 years.
Between 1995 and their second WAFCON tournament in 2014, Zambia fluctuated between FIFA eligibility, at times being unranked due to prolonged periods of inactivity. At many points, the Zambian football federation (FAZ) did not bother to call up a squad of players to go to qualification tournaments, causing them to miss out on the qualification stage for the 1999 and 2011 Women’s World Cups, the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympics tournaments, and the 1998, 2000, 2004, and 2010 WAFCON tournaments.
The years 2007 to 2012 were a particularly dark period in Zambian women’s football. In March 2012, the team reached its lowest FIFA World Ranking in its history at 126th place, just 8 places above the very bottom. Despite a lack of success or support from the Zambian FA at the senior level, many of Zambia’s current stars began developing into more committed footballers around this time through development programs independent of the FAZ. One of these was a grassroots football development program called Airtel Rising Stars, which helped develop young players in multiple African countries who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to become professional footballers. Players like Barbra Banda and Grace Chanda took part in this program and participated in youth tournaments around the world, culminating in their qualification to the 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica. Here we can see most of Zambia’s current core of players- Banda, Grace Chanda, Hellen Chanda, Hazel Nali, Margaret Belemu, and Ireen Lungu, amongst others- assemble into a team for the first time in the context of a major international tournament. They only could manage a third-place finish in their group, but they were nonetheless an exciting side that was overflowing with potential.
As those players grew, so did the status of the Zambia women’s senior football team. The Copper Queens only continued to improve after their 2014 U-17 World Cup bid and their 2014 WAFCON appearance, constantly integrating younger and even more talented players into their squad. After coming close to qualifying for both the 2016 Olympics and the 2016 edition of WAFCON, Zambia regained their place at WAFCON in 2018. This time, they added 18-year-olds Barbra Banda and Racheal Kundananji, the latter who had only begun playing football in 2017. Together, combined with Grace Chanda, they led the team’s attack to achieve a third place finish in the group of death that contained Nigeria, South Africa, and Equatorial Guinea.
Prior to their World Cup qualification in 2022, Zambia’s biggest achievement was qualifying to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Grace Chanda was Zambia’s hero throughout the qualification process, scoring 5 of the team’s 10 goals. This tournament, postponed a year due to COVID-19 concerns, was the first that most of the women’s footballing world had ever seen of Zambia. The Copper Queens were undeniably the most entertaining team to follow throughout the group stage, which was made apparent very early on when they played the Netherlands in their debut match. The two teams broke the Olympic record for most goals scored in a single match, with Zambia losing 3-10 against the Netherlands. Zambia's 3 goals were each scored by Barbra Banda, a then-21-year-old prospect who was only really known outside of Zambia to the Chinese and Spanish football faithful. Banda repeated her magic again in the next match, scoring yet another hat trick against China in a thrilling match that ended in a 4-4 draw.
Since then, Zambia has been the hottest team in Africa, a status that they kept going into the 2022 Women's Africa Cup of Nations. Their momentum briefly came to a halt when Olympics star Barbra Banda was removed from tournament eligibility due to a testosterone count that exceeded CAF’s archaic regulations. Regardless, Zambia continued without her, relying much heavier on midfielders like Ireen Lungu and backup forwards like Avell Chitundu for goalscoring. After a dramatic penalty shootout in the quarterfinals against Senegal, Zambia reached the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in their history, qualifying themselves to the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time ever. After falling to a lone South African penalty in the semis, Zambia eventually finished in third place over African heavyweights Nigeria, ushering in a new era for football in Southern Africa.
Hazel Nali celebrates after scoring the match-winning penalty that qualifies Zambia to the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup | photo via zambianfootball.co.zm
Similar to many African women's national teams, Zambia's unprecedented continental success has been in spite of its harmful and corrupt federation. Some of the most recent problems to come out of the Zambia camp occured this month, when news broke that players hadn't been paid by the FAZ since they competed in the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. Two days prior to their now-legendary win against Germany, the players sat out of training in protest of not being paid by the FAZ. Ed Aarons and Romain Molina claimed in an article for The Guardian that players have been doing "silent protests," like refusing to sing prior to matches and training sessions as they traditionally do. Aarons and Molina also claim that sources close to the squad have said that players were forced to sign a "code of conduct" that has imposed "ridiculous restrictions" on the players in Zambia's camp.
The Zambian players have persevered through this dysfunction for decades and continue to do so going into the biggest tournament of their history. Fortunately, this time around they will do so with Barbra Banda back in the squad, and a much more experienced group of players than the tournaments of years’ past.
Coach: Bruce Mwape
Bruce Mwape prior to Zambia's 2023 friendly against The Republic of Ireland | Brendan Moran for Sportsfile
*This section has a content warning for discussion of sexual abuse*
Bruce Mwape is a Zambian football coach who has been in charge of the Zambia women’s national football team since 2018. Prior to managing the senior Zambian team, Mwape was the head coach of Nchanga Rangers, a men’s club football team that plays in Zambia’s top division. Under Mwape’s coaching, Zambia has reached an Olympics tournament and a Women’s World Cup tournament for the first time in their history.
It would be irresponsible to talk about Mwape without also mentioning the multiple recent allegations of sexual abuse mounted against him. Zambia's FA has investigated Mwape since last year for accusations of sexual abuse within the team, which were reported publicly the day after Zambia's friendly win against Germany. In another bombshell article written by Aarons and Molina, players have claimed that Mwape will solicit sex from any of the players that he wants, and that they have to say yes. Sources close to the players have also claimed that players will receive threats if they dare to come clean about the behind-the-scenes abuse and dysfunction. FIFA is currently working with the FAZ to open further investigation into these claims.
Also under investigation by the FAZ for similar claims of sexual abuse was the coach of Zambia's U-17 women's football team, Kaluba Kangwa, and the team's goalkeeper coach, Alex Sikanyika. Both left their position in November 2022.
Zambia has a remarkably young team, possessing the second-youngest average squad age of any of the 32 teams, 23.8 years, ahead of only Haiti. Their oldest player, Susan Banda, is 33 years old, and their second-oldest player, Hellen Chanda, is only 28.
Zambia are left without two major players in their squad. The first, Hazel Nali, was meant to be their starting goalkeeper but sustained an ACL injury shortly before the tournament began. The second is team veteran Grace Chanda, who's removal from the team was much more controversial. Chanda, who was essential to the team in their qualification to the 2021 Olympics, has fallen ill and has been hospitalized according to Zambia's team doctor. However, according to Spanish news outlet Relevo, local Zambian media also claim that her removal is partly retribution from FAZ for leading the charge in a player dispute about player bonuses awarded by FIFA. Chanda has been replaced by winger Comfort Selemani.
Catherine Musonda (Tomiris-Turan), Leticia Lungu (ZESCO), Eunice Sakala (Nkwazi Queens)
Judith Soko (YASA), Lushomo Mweemba (Green Buffaloes), Mary Mulenga (Red Arrows), Margaret Belemu (Shanghai Shengli), Martha Tembo (BIIK Shymkent (Kazygurt)), Agness Musase (Green Buffaloes), Esther Banda (BUSA), Vast Phiri (ZESCO)
Susan Banda (Red Arrows), Mary Wilombe (Red Arrows), Hellen Mubanga (Zaragoza), Evarine Katongo (ZISD), Ireen Lungu (BIIK Shymkent), Hellen Chanda (BIIK Shymkent), Avell Chitundu (ZESCO)
Ochumba Lubandji (Red Arrows), Comfort Selemani (Elite Ladies, Barbra Banda (Shanghai Shengli), Racheal Kundananji (Madrid CFF), Siomala Mapepa (Elite Ladies)
Best Player: Barbra Banda
Barbra Banda at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics | photo via The Equalizer
Club: Shanghai Shengli (China, CWSL)
Position: Forward (ST)
Until 2021, Banda was a relatively unknown figure in the world of women’s football. Most of those who knew of her before then were most likely Liga F diehards at the time when she played for now-relegated EdF Logroño. 19-year-old Banda scored 7 goals in just 11 matches at the Basque club before moving to China in 2020 and becoming the star player of the Chinese Women’s Super League. However, her popularity then is nothing compared to what it is now, especially after the shift she put in with Zambia at the 2021 Olympics. In a group with global women’s football superpowers Netherlands and Brazil, and Asian women’s football superpower China, Banda scored an incredible 6 goals in 2 matches. Her back-to-back hat-tricks against the Netherlands and China put her on the map as one of the world’s top young strikers. Surprisingly enough, Banda did not make a big European move once the Olympics were over, and has since stayed another two seasons with Shanghai Shengli.
Banda was the primary reason that all eyes were on Zambia leading up to WAFCON last year, but CAF’s rules about testosterone levels prevented Banda from making her much-awaited tournament appearance. Despite the setback, Zambia managed to qualify for the Women's World Cup for the first time, and Banda will finally be making her big (and deserved) appearance in a Women's World Cup tournament.
As one of the world's top young talents, Banda is an incredibly skilled player who is most effective in transition, characterized by her explosive pace and her comfort with the ball at her feet. She can finish from anywhere, but some of her most iconic goals have been scored by chipping the goalkeeper from outside the penalty area.
Player to watch: Racheal Kundananji
Racheal Kundananji with Zambia during their 2023 friendly against Germany | photo by Steffen Prößdorf via Wikimedia Commons
Club: Madrid CFF (Spain, Liga F)
Position: Forward (LW, ST)
Racheal Kundananji has been dangerously in form for the past year, scoring 25 times in the league with her new club Madrid CFF. Kundananji's unrelenting goalscoring helped bring her club to their highest ever finish in the Spanish first division (5th), and on an individual level, she finished with the second-most goals in the league, just two behind group stage opponent Alba Redondo of Spain.
Between her heroics against Barcelona and Levante and an iconic performance that helped her country defeat Germany, Kundananji has been Zambia's most high-profile player going into this World Cup. Kundananji possesses many of the ideal qualities of an elite striker. Her acceleration with and without the ball at her feet is next to none, with many of her biggest league goals being scored 1v1 with the goalkeeper after dribbling past the last defender. As a finisher, Kundananji is known for her cool, calm, and collected one-touch strikes. Additionally, she is one of Zambia's main sources of chance creation as either a left-winger or a second striker to Banda.
Group stage head to head:
Zambia will be playing against Spain, former world champions Japan, and twice-qualified Costa Rica.
Since Zambia are fairly new to playing at the international level outside of Africa, especially given their long periods of FIFA inactivity, they have rarely played matches against non-African teams. Therefore, Zambia have never played any of their group stage opponents.