The Africa Cup of Nations is a tournament that finds itself at odds with the football calendar and is often overlooked because of this.  Players are recalled from their club sides to represent their countries on a different continent well away from the watchful eyes of the Western media.  This particular tournament has been the scene for some beautiful football, some ugly football, and the two sides meeting in the final are each struggling to overcome history to win the Cup.

The two finalists for the Africa Cup of Nations, Zambia and Cote D’Ivoire had very similar paths to the final.  Zambia overcame the tournament favorites Ghana thanks to a brilliantly placed shot from Emmanuel Mayuka and a diving penalty stop from Kennedy Mweene, to finish 1-0 and secure their place in the final.  Shortly after Zambia’s 1-0 win, Cote D’Ivoire secured their place in the final after a close match with Mali finished 1-0 in their favor thanks to a breathtaking run and finish by Gervinho.

The two finalists are also linked by their respective links to tragedy.  Zambia has been struggling to bring closure to the 1993 air disaster that claimed the lives of 18 national team footballers, 4 coaches, and a chairman of the Zambian FA on their way to a match in Senegal.  While the honored dead were buried in “Heroes Acre” just outside of the national team stadium in Lusaka, an emergency squad was assembled for upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.  The Chipolopolo (copper bullets) reached the finals of the qualifying tournament and even managed to take a 1-0 lead against Nigeria before being defeated.  The squad returned home as heroes, while this current squad hopes to honored in similar fashion by returning home champions.

Cote D’Ivoire has been a nation in turmoil throughout recent history.  In 2006, their qualification for the World Cup was enough to convince their President Laurent Gbagbo to resume peace talks to heal a nation divided by civil war.  An agreement was reached and elections were held that had President Gbagbo retain his seat of power.  Trouble again rose in 2010 when presidential elections held by the Ivoirian Independent Elections Committee declared the winner Alassane Ouattara over President Gbagbo.  Gbagbo refused to recognize the legitimacy of the election and was sworn into another five year term the following day.
Gbagbo’s claim immediately divided the country while protesters took to the streets to demonstrate their outrage.  Prime Minister Guillaume Soro turned in his resignation while the African Union held talks moderated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki.  Sporadic violence swept the country over the following months, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians and the human rights abuse of many more.  

While governments around the world called for Laurent Gbagbo to step down, he remained holed up with his forces in the presidential palace.  Eventually, on April 11, 2010, a concerted effort between the United Nations, France, and Ouattara forces stormed the presidential palace and arrested Gbagbo.  The palace and presidency was then handed over to Ouattara and Soro, who began the task of rebuilding the severely damaged country with the help of a council headed by former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, religious leaders, regional leaders, and Chelsea/Cote D’Ivoire striker Didier Drogba.  Legislative elections were held on December 11, 2011, while Gbagbo awaits trial in The Hague.

The problems facing these two nations may be different, but both nations are proud of their footballing history and rally around their respective squads.  Zambia seeks their first Africa Cup of Nations victory, Cote D’Ivoire hopes to earn their second while giving their people a much needed reason to celebrate.  Ivoirians are already seeing the benefits that football can bring to a nation thanks to the Didier Drogba Foundation, whose goal is to bring education and health care to the children of Cote D’Ivoire with the aspirations of constructing a hospital in the capital of Abidjan.  So far the foundation has succeeded in raising funds for the Red Cross and orphanages throughout the country.

From a football standpoint there is a great deal between these two teams.  Zambia have certainly overachieved, reaching the finals for only the third time in their country's history.  Zambia was ranked 71st overall by FIFA before the tournament began, while Cote D'Ivoire boasted the continent's top ranking of 18th overall.  Zambia is led by their captain Christopher Katongo, who plays abroad for Henan Construction in China.  Their best known player is probably Emmanuel Mayuka who plays for Swiss club Young Boys.

Cote D'Ivoire on the other hand are considered favorites heading into Sunday's final in Libreville, Gabon.  Les Elephants have not been scored upon so far in the tournament and have won every game en route to the Final.  Boasting international stars such as Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Gervinho, and Salomon Kalou, the pressure rests on these players to bring home the title for the second time.

Whatever the outcome may be this weekend, both nations can be proud of the performances their teams have turned in throughout this tournament.  Once again the unifying power of football has given those who join the beautiful game another reason to celebrate its splendor.