Whisper it quietly, but Zambia’s men’s hockey5s team are on the cusp of something special.
Today, they pulled off one of the greatest upsets of the YOG so far, with a 6-4 victory over Australia – the gold medallists in field hockey at the past two editions of the tournament. And the swashbuckling style with which it was achieved, characterised by lung-bursting runs forward by attackers Phillimon Bwali and Andrew Moyo, won them a new legion of fans, who chanted ‘ZAMBIA!’ as the players performed a celebratory dance at the Hockey Field.
They’re not done yet, either. If they beat Malaysia in their semi-final on Saturday, Zambia are guaranteed a place on the podium. “We’re aiming for nothing but a gold medal,” said goalscorer David Kapeso after the match.
If the team achieve this they would emulate sprinter Sydney Siame, who won Zambia’s only previous medal at the YOG, with 200m gold at Nanjing 2014. And just like Siame, Zambia’s hockey5s team honed their craft at the Olympic Youth Development Centre (OYDC), based in Lusaka.
Inaugurated in 2010 by the IOC as part of its Sport for Hope programme, the centre has transformed Zambian sport by offering modern training facilities and sports competitions, as well as educational and community activities. In Buenos Aires, Zambia is also represented in athletics, equestrian, judo and swimming, with many of its athletes training at the centre’s facilities.
Before they qualified for the YOG by finishing as runners-up at the African Youth Games in July, the hockey5s team attended a three-week training camp at the OYDC, and repeated the trick before Buenos Aires 2018. According to team captain Joseph Mubanga, the camp has laid the foundations for their surprise run to the semi-finals.
“The training camp at the OYDC made us very focused,” he says. “We are all from Lusaka so have been training there since we were young, which has helped us adapt to the coach and his staff.”
The coach in question is Samuel Tagwireyi, who supervised both training camps, and despite being only 21 years old himself, has valuable experience to share with the young players, having competed himself at Nanjing 2014 when Zambia reached the quarter-finals.
“That’s one of the most important things that has made us perform well in this tournament,” adds Mubanga. “[Samuel] looked at the mistakes that Zambia made in 2014, and made sure that we worked on those things in training and implemented them on the pitch. Age doesn’t matter; the most important thing is the respect he gives to us, and the respect we show him.”
It is this preparation and team spirit, along with the improved infrastructure, that has enabled Zambia to fulfil its potential in hockey5s, leading the squad to defeat an established hockey powerhouse like Australia on the biggest stage of youth sports. “We didn’t think of them as the champions,” says Mubanga. “We knew that in hockey5s, anyone can win. That’s what we had in our minds.”
With this type of attitude, the crowd may be treated to some more trademark dance moves over the next two days.