Look at all that is good about Zambian football and you will see the hand of Kalusha Bwalya. He scored a hat-trick when Zambia beat Italy at the 1988 Olympics. After the air-crash of 1993 had wiped out almost the entire team, he was the rallying point the new side was built around. And, as Zambia look to reach their first Cup of Nations final since that remarkable renaissance side of 1994 in Wednesday's semi-final against Ghana, it is Kalusha, now president of the football federation, who drew the blueprint.
This Zambia has been almost six years in the planning, resulting from the failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, when they finished behind Togo and Senegal. "The long plan began with the president Kalusha Bwalya when he was vice-president," the captain Christopher Katongo explained. "He made a plan for four years. He kept the players we had to keep 70-80% of the players to see what we could do.
"That began in 2006 and this is payback. In 2006 when he was the coach, we were eliminated in the first round. In 2008, the same thing, but he was the president and he insisted that we keep this team. Then in 2010, you saw what we did: we went to the next round and we lost to Nigeria."
The group was primarily drawn from the Under-23 and Under-20 sides, and what's telling about Zambia's success is how few of them have gone on to great things individually. Only the centre-forward Emmanuel Mayuka plays for a top-flight European club, and then only for the Swiss side Young Boys. This is absolutely not a golden generation, but rather a squad drawn predominantly from Africa: five of the squad are based at home in Zambia, eight in South Africa and five with the DR Congo giants TP Mazembe while the midfielder Jonas Sakuwaha is with Al-Merreikh in Sudan. Katomgo and James Chamanga play in China and the young midfielder Chisamba Lungu is in the Russian second flight with Ural Sverdlovsk.
This Zambia are a notably tight-knit squad who clearly enjoy each other's company, which is what made it such a shock when the midfield Clifford Mulenga was sent home last week after refusing to apologise for breaking a curfew with two other players (who did apologise and were thus spared). Hervé Renard is clearly popular with his players, but he is a father-figure who is not afraid to impose discipline — a point he emphasised at a press conference on Tuesday, when he reacted to the chaos that marked the end of the English section and the beginning of the French by beating his hand on the table and hissing "DI-SCI-PLINE" while gesturing in mock despair at the scrum by the door.
In that regard, although after his first two years in the job he had a year away with Angola before returning to replace Ivano Bonetti after the qualifiers for this tournament, Renard is reminiscent of Oscar Washington Tabárez who, as Uruguay coach, also forged a squad in 2006, taking them to success at last year's Copa América. For the Uruguayans, team spirit mean not merely that the players liked each other, but that they respected their coach enough immediately to subjugate themselves to his tactical demands. Renard has had a similar impact.
"[The togetherness] helps from a tactical point of view," Katongo said. "For instance with [the rapid left-sided forward Rainford] Kalaba, I know where he's going to run. I know his weaknesses; he knows my weaknesses. I know his strong points. I think it's a good thing that we know each other. We've stayed together for four or five years.
"We have a team unit. We may not have big names but we have a team unit. You just have to look at the way the Senegalese play. Nigeria is not here – why? Cameroon is not here – why? The teamwork is the important thing. You can have 200 million professional players at Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter … but if they can't play together as a team, they can't do anything, they can't win anything. And this is our key point: if we can just play as a team then Ghana are beatable."
It was Senegal, much fancied with their mass of attacking strength, who first discovered just how dangerous Zambia's teamwork can be.
Sitting back and picking Senegal off on the break, Zambia were 2-0 up within 25 minutes of that first game and went on to win comfortably, silencing pre-tournament criticism. "We'd been working on how we would play tactically against Senegal," Katongo explained. "We tried to do this against Namibia, but we drew, and people were saying: 'Oh, you can't score ...' but we were trying tactically how we were going to approach these games. We played against South Africa and drew 1-1, and they said: 'Oh, it's not working,' and stuff like that. But we were planning, we were in a process. And then D-Day came, and we did."
Ghana, meanwhile, have a number of injury concerns. Asamoah Gyan admits he is still "not tip-top", having come into the tournament with a calf problem. Although he maintains he is improving, he needed a break in training to have his ankle strapped. The midfielder Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu did not train at all having suffered a knock against Tunisia in the quarter-final and makes way for Derek Boateng. Also absent is the left-back Al-Hassane who is replaced by Lee Addy, and Jordan Ayew comes in for Sulley Muntari.
The Black Stars themselves are the result of consistency of approach, the coach Goran Stefanovic continuing the approach implemented by his fellow Serbian Milovan Rajevac with almost the same personnel. Long-term planning is hardly a revolutionary concept, but it is rare enough in African football that those who try it, can enjoy great rewards.