Zambia’s women’s football team are set to make history next summer when they make their Olympic Games debut.
Imagine getting the chance to make your international major tournament debut at an Olympic Games.
Well, for Zambia’s women’s football team, nicknamed the Copper Queens, they will be doing exactly that when they step on the pitch at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The Copper Queens have never qualified for a FIFA Women’s World Cup ever before and have only previously participated in three African Women’s Championships. In fact, the last time Zambia participated in an Olympic Football tournament was at Seoul 1988.
So, qualifying for Tokyo 2020 was a proud moment.
“It means a lot for everyone and the country at large. It is encouraging for women, not even the men’s team qualified…we made history,” Zambia’s captain Barbra Banda told the Olympic Channel.
A young leader
Born in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, Banda started playing football at the tender age of seven. It was her dad that inspired her to take up the beautiful game.
“He used to encourage me to practise…he was also in football. He encouraged me by telling me if that is my talent or if I liked it, I should concentrate on it,” the 20-year-old forward explained.
At 13, Banda represented Zambia at the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, which was the country’s first appearance at the tournament before making her senior debut just a couple of years later.
Since then, Banda has gone on to play her first professional football league game in the Primera Division, Spain’s women’s first division with EdF Logroño. The club had been newly promoted to the top-tier for the 2018/19 season when she arrived and managed to avoid relegation, finishing 11th before a seventh-place finish in the 2019/20 season.
It was a dream move for the then teenager, who is still one of the only players on the national team to play outside Zambia.
“The way I used to play in Zambia and how I played in Europe was quite different,” said Banda, who was one of eight players to score a hat-trick last season.
“In terms of that, Spain is more developed and their league is competitive compared to Zambia. The Spanish league is very strong and competitive."
"Each team you play, [it] offers good competition. [Playing in Spain] helped me to improve in so many ways.”
After spending two seasons in Spain, Banda made the move to the 2019 Chinese Super League side runners up Shanghai Shengli in January. However, she has been unable to make her debut as the season is currently suspended.
Olympic dreams come true
The journey to the Olympic stage wasn’t going to be an smooth for Zambia.
“It was not easy because each and every team was strong,” Banda said, “We decided we wouldn’t underestimate any team.”
In their two previous attempts to qualify for the Olympic Games (London 2012 and Rio 2016), the team had not advanced past the second round.
However, after two walkover matches, which saw their opponents Angola withdraw and Zimbabwe fail to arrive for a second leg, they were through to the third round. Zambia then took a 3-0 aggregate win over Botswana to progress to the fourth round of continental qualifiers where they defeated Kenya.
They came face-to-face with Cameroon, who were ranked 57 places above the Copper Queens, in the final round where it was either automatic qualification to the Olympics or a play-off against South American side Chile.
Cameroon were favourites to win - they were London 2012 Olympians after all and had made the Round of 16 at the Women’s World Cup last year. However, Zambia shocked the African powerhouses to make history and book their ticket to the biggest sporting event in the world on the away goal rule.
But Banda knows that heading into the Olympic Games they could face some of the top nations with the likes of seven-time Copa America champions Brazil and back-to-back World Champions United States, who are also qualifying. In fact, all the teams that have qualified for Tokyo 2020 featured at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France last year.
Despite the pedigree of the opposition they potentially face, hopes are still high for the Copper Queens.
“What I can say to my team is that they just have to be determined,” Banda said. “We are going there [Tokyo] with the aim to reach that level whereby we are going to the semi-finals.”
“We have something in us. I believe in my team. The teams have to be ready for us.”
People might wonder how Banda can be confident is her sides abilities but for the youngster it comes down to one thing: belief.
“I have confidence and courage because I know football,” she said, “The one who wants it the most, is the one who is going to get it.”
“I tell my team that if we want it, we have to work extra hard to get it. We have to be united because if we are separated there is nowhere we can go. We just have to stand as one and everything will be possible.”
Leaving a mark
Women’s football has seen remarkable growth over the past decade from national federations inducing pay equality to 1.12 billion tuning in to watch the World Cup final. However, many countries, including those on the African continent, are still finding their feet in developing the women’s game.
“For now, we are developing…we cannot compare it to our men's league because here they concentrate more on the men's league,” Banda explained, “For us girls, they only look after us when we do well.”
“We do not have sponsorship, so we find it difficult for us to improve but I know with time, we are coming up bit by bit. We will improve as long as we are doing well.”
However, changes are starting to be implemented by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), which released it's women's football strategy to grow participation, improve the game through competition and professionalisation and to promote and change perceptions.
For Banda personally, she is still hoping to leave her mark on the beautiful game as she continues to develop as a player. The young forward has a bright future ahead of her and knows her dreams have no limitations.
“[I] am still young, still playing and developing my football so I dream hard. I want to be among the top. That is my biggest dream to be among the top girls in the world,” she said.
“My aim is to leave a mark, my own name, my own record book.”