When Milutin Sredojevic took up the Zambian coaching position he was under no illusion about the daunting task facing him; to resurrect Zambia’s chances of qualifying for the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations. The only problem? He was taking charge of a team with no points after two matches, and rooted at the bottom of the group, six points adrift of the leaders Algeria.
Before he landed in the country, there were voices of concern from close colleagues’ and coaches who spoke to him. ‘What are you doing? You are destined to fail. You are going to a country that has won the Africa Cup of Nations, then gone on, failing at the first round twice , before failing to qualify for the last two tournaments.’
Still, he had the belief that he would be able to turn the team’s fortunes around, given the country’s football history and the players he had seen and worked with before: ‘I have a never-say-die, a never give up approach. I came here believing that Zambian players are the biggest strength of Zambian football. I also believe that God will see the efforts we are putting in reviving Zambian football and we will get back on track in the qualifying series.’
On arrival one of his first tasks was to call two large training camps, one in Lusaka, the other in Kitwe, to assess the top 120 players in the country and to come up with a nucleus on which he would base his national team. He recalls: ‘The idea was to turn raw talent into finished product and we are now in this process.’
In his strategic thinking of how to ensure Zambia bounces back upon the teams return to action, ‘Micho put in a series of action plans he believes will ultimately see the national team back on track by the time the qualifying rounds are over. ‘ I have set a precise, effective master plan that will see that all those things that have stopped Zambia achieving results are reduced and minimised, and that those that have been part of Zambian football identity in times of success are revived. Zambia will return to where it once was, and for that to happen we need to have a triple-pronged strategy. These are; to have an iron clad defence that will stop us leaking goals, to have a creative build up that will be the first step in effectively defending, and also effectively attacking, and then to have a sharp attack to score goals because we have only scored one in the first two matches.
Several months into his tenure now, Micho recently had the chance to put his charges in action in a series of friendly matches in which Zambia was tested against opposition of varying quality. The results were largely favourable, even though some critics questioned the quality of the opponents.
He believes that it was all worthwhile and that the team made some important strides during the series of matches: ‘We played Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia twice, playing only once at home. We only lost once, to Kenya with a disallowed goal that shouldn’t have been. This aside, I would say that we have learned a lot. We tried, tested and experimented. While our overseas players were at higher level because their leagues had started, we needed to raise the levels of our local players who only started their league on 31st October. We succeeded in our mission. We know, however, that friendly matches are different from competitive matches. We learned after five matches, who are the players who can redeem our pride of Zambia as a nation.’ Now we play competitive matches against Botswana and they will be hard, tough matches.’
Rebuilding the national team was always going to be on Micho’s agenda and he has resolutely set about the task. His two training camps brought the cream of local Zambian players together and was eventually whittled down to the squad that will be in action twice over the next five days and beyond. There were wholesale changes when he was finally done and the team is definitively a new-look one.
Was this by design or coincidence? ‘Nobody can totally rebuild a team in this short period, especially with the Covid-19 situation. We have done the best from February until now. We have kept the pillars of the team together that have been together before but improving them mentally, physically, technically and tactically. We also have the new players who are learning the culture of playing for the national team and what it means to play as Zambian’s for Zambia. I expect us to give out the best. Every coach has his own philosophy. We are still working on getting to the game model that would suit us and get us to where we want to be. I believe we are on the right track individually, and as a team.
The inclusion of Augustine Mulenga and Justin Shonga surprised some national team watchers as Micho had previously emphasised his criteria of players seeing regular action as a consideration for a call-up. The absence of Patson Daka, through injury, left him with the need to make some adjustments to his squad and he has clearly widened his options by calling up the two players who only recently returned to league action after many months not playing at Orlando Pirates before joining new clubs at the start of the season.
He speaks candidly about their inclusion: ‘All the questions about Mulenga and Shonga are totally unfair. Their not playing after my departure from Orlando Pirates is something that related to administrative and managerial issue, rather than football issues. Mulenga has been one of the most consistent with assists and goals, Shonga has been a goal scoring machine with over 15 goals for the national team in recent years is something that a coach would always consider. I set realistic targets for them to get clubs and start playing and knock again on the door of the national team. Shonga has played three times for TTM and Mulenga has played twice.
They deserve to be called back based on their performances and, especially since Patson Daka is out through injury. I have put past sentiment and emotion aside. I have purely judged them on their present performance and they fully deserve to be here. They came early to camp, they have been in full training seven days prior to the match. Whether they start or not is purely up to how things go in the last training sessions.’
The Africa Cup qualifying series are Micho’s current target but his long-term plans extend beyond the immediate challenges. Over the horizon are the ultimate challenges of becoming African champions for the second time and the long sought after first ever World Cup qualification.
Does he believe these objectives are achievable? ‘Football is a game that is unpredictable, but what is important is to learn from all the countries who have bounced back from rock-bottom to be successful. We start with a dream but then all success starts with a dream. We hope our games against Botswana will be a building-block, that our youth and CHAN teams will be able to do well and that we can grow as a team with momentum and in all football aspects. I believe that it is possible to achieve big targets, I believe in the people I am surrounded with, and that we will achieve what we dream about.
Using a politically incorrect description Micho, in his eagerness to explain his determination, describes himself as a ‘ suicide bomber’ with an almost fanatical mission to succeed. He speaks philosophically: ‘I will either enjoy success in Zambia or not. NOT isn’t in my vocabulary. I have come here to succeed. I believe that Zambia has everything it takes to succeed. I want to be the generator of positive energy, the agent of positive change. Zambian football should be the pride of Zambia and be where the rest of Africa expects us to be. It’s a road full of hardships and not a bed of roses, but a bed of thorns. When I get up every morning I tell myself I’m going to give everything to Zambia and to Zambian football.’