Stopila Sunzu began Sunday as an unheralded centre-back for the Congolese side TP Mazembe. He ended it as the unlikely hero of one of the greatest stories of redemption football has ever known. As Kalusha Bwalya, the greatest Zambian footballer of all time, was engulfed by the Zambia players after their victory in a penalty shoot-out, there were tears of joy but also tears born of the knowledge that this should have been his team-mates celebrating with him.
Herve Renard, the Zambia coach, had spoken of destiny in this most emotional of triumphs and Zambia played as though they believed it.
On Friday morning they gathered on a scruffy beach in Libreville, sang and laid flowers in the water for their compatriots who had died in 1993, shortly after taking off from the Gabonese capital for a World Cup qualifier in Senegal. Last night they played for their memory and, against all expectation, ended up with Zambia's first Cup of Nations. Bwalya survived only because he played for PSV Eindhoven and was making his own way to Dakar.
For Ivory Coast it was another story of failure, a fourth straight tournament in which they should have won but did not. Their golden generation is running out of chances to lift a trophy. For Didier Drogba, the oldest of the side, there was particular anguish.
He had wasted a sitter 10 minutes from the end of the 2006 final and then missed a penalty in the shoot-out. Last night he converted in the shoot-out but could have avoided the need had he not blazed a 70th-minute penalty over the bar.
The first 14 kicks in the penalty competition were converted, at which the Ivory Coast coach, François Zahoui, clearly asked Gervinho to step up. He refused and Kolo Touré saw his effort saved low to his right by the Zambia keeper Kennedy Mweene. The gifted winger Rainford Kalaba could have won it but, with the chance to make history, thrashed his kick over. Gervinho at last went forward but his shot was tentative and high, leaving Sunzu to complete a victory Zambia seemed to have believed was theirs from the moment the draw ensured they would play only the final in Libreville.
In the semi-final Zambia had sat off, almost forcing Ghana to play, but against an Ivory Coast team that has been consistently conservative they made the running, encouraged by a clever corner routine that almost brought an opening goal after two minutes.
Rainford Kalaba took it short to Christopher Katongo, who cut it back for Nathan Sinkala and his shot was well-saved low to his right by Boubacar Barry.
As Kalaba had a free-kick glance just wide off Cheik Tioté, there were shimmies and shuffles all over, almost as though they were determined to rile Ivory Coast. The person who seemed most irritated, though, was Renard, who thumped the right-back Davies Nkausu in the chest while bawling instructions as he prepared to take a throw just in front of the bench.
Ivory Coast's policy may have been throughout the tournament to sit back, absorb pressure and wait for mistakes. Zambia simply did not make them. Zahoui's safety-first policy turned out to be an enormous risk; without style it was victory or nothing, and it turned out to be nothing. Drogba may have one more chance in South Africa next year but the clock ticks ever louder.
For Zambia, though, there was a bittersweet joy, a sense of having done something that transcended sport. Efford Chabala, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Kelvin "Malaza" Mutale, Timothy Mwitwa, Numba Mwila, Richard Mwanza, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Kenan Simambe, Godfrey Kangwa, Winter Mumba, Patrick "Bomber" Banda, Godfrey "Ucar" Chitalu and Alex Chola were not there last night but the modern-day side built for them the greatest possible memorial.