x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fleeing Zambians overshadow CAF Confederation Cup semi-finals

The players, Stoppila Sunzu, Rainford Kalaba and Nathan Sinkala, left Zambai for DR Congo under the cover of bush.

Stoppila Sunzu, right, defends Didier Drogba during a 2012 Africa Cup of Nations match. Issouf Sanogo / AFP
Stoppila Sunzu, right, defends Didier Drogba during a 2012 Africa Cup of Nations match. Issouf Sanogo / AFP

A bizarre incident involving three Zambia stars has overshadowed the CAF Confederation Cup semi-finals preparations of Democratic Republic of Congo club TP Mazembe.

Defender Stoppila Sunzu and midfielders Rainford Kalaba and Nathan Sinkala claimed they were injured this week and did not leave Lusaka for a friendly against Brazil in Beijing.

But Zambian football officials refused to believe the trio, who were part of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations-winning team, and confiscated their passports.

Sunzu, Kalaba and Sinkala then reportedly fled to southern Congolese city Lubumbashi, where Mazembe are based, evading border officials by going through the bush.

The Zambians are key figures in a Mazembe team poised to reach the Confederation Cup final Saturday as they have home advantage and a 2-1 lead over Stade Malien of Mali.

France-born coach Patrice Carteron rates centre-back Sunzu the best defender on the continent and also raves about Kalaba.

“Rainford is clever and intelligent,” the former Mali handler told the BBC. “Everything he does is pure, beautiful football.”

Kalaba and DR Congo playmaker Tresor Mputu scored in Bamako two weeks ago before Morimakan Koita pulled one goal back and set up a tense second half.

That result leaves Stade with a mammoth mission on an artificial Lubumbashi pitch as they must score at least twice to reach the final.

And Mazembe boast a perfect home record in the second-tier African club competition this season, winning four matches, scoring 12 goals and conceding just two.

The Congolese owe their success to a multi-national squad. Apart from the Zambians, Carteron can choose stars from Ghana, Mali and Tanzania.

Mbwana Samata, scorer of five Confederation Cup goals, is Tanzanian, and he was on target in a 7-0 DR Congo Super Cup drubbing of MK Kinshasa last weekend.

Ghanaian Daniel Nii Adjei scored twice, compatriots Gladson Awako and Richard Kissi Boateng once, and there were goals from Tanzanian Thomas Ulimwengu and Congolese Herve Ndonga.

Stade, who also have a French coach in Pascal Janin, are unlikely to be brushed aside so easily, but it would be a shock if Mazembe failed to reach the decider.

A Tunisian club will face them if they qualify, with CS Sfaxien and CA Bizertin both based in the north African country.

Sfaxien, the only club to win the Confederation Cup twice since its introduction in 2004, are based in the Mediterranean industrial city Sfax.

Bizertin play in Bizerte, the most northern African city, and recently appealed for donations from their 20,000 fan base to solve financial problems.

The first leg of the semi-final in Bizerte finished 0-0, making a Sfaxien side guided by caretaker national coach Ruud Krol slight favourites to win the return game.

However, Sfaxien cannot play at home because a pitch called a “sand pit” by Krol is being repaired, so the fixture has moved to Stade El Menzah in Tunis.

Ivorian Idrissa Kouyate and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef are the Sfaxien danger men, claiming seven goals between them in Africa this season.

Bizertin have found goals difficult to come by, managing just six in nine games, and Ali Machani is the leading scorer with a mere two.