Tokyo 2020: Zambia's long road to the Olympics
Photo: My 18

Zambia have qualified for women's soccer at the Olympics for the first time and despite the long odds they face, the Copper Queens are relishing their chance on the big stage.

The Copper Queens' story

Zambia defied the experts, defeating Cameroon in the African playoffs to become the continent's lone qualifier in Tokyo. The Copper Queens have had little preparation since their qualification in March of last year, only playing one friendly.

Despite the challenges facing them, the excitement of qualifying for one of the world's biggest tournaments has not lessened, according to captain Barbara Banda.

"It is so amazing and everyone is excited to represent the country - not just Zambia, but Africa at large", she said to BBC Sport Africa. "It is a sign that women's football in Zambia is going somewhere and we are improving each and every time.

"We are so happy as a team to represent the continent. It feels great because we worked so hard for it. I know we have a good team."

The lone friendly - an impressive 2-1 victory against Chile, also making their debut at the Olympics, came in December 2020, with a scheduled second game abruptly cancelled after several of the Zambia squad tested positive for COVID-19.

In February, the Copper Queens were then set to test themselves against strong opposition at an eight-team international tournament in Turkey only for more positive COVID tests in the squad to force their withdrawal prior to departure.

In June, a match against Great Britain highlighted an eight-team tournament they were scheduled to compete, but again coronavirus - or, more specifically, the travel restrictions it enforces - crushed those plans.

Placed in a group with two-time silver medallists Brazil, 1996 runners-up China and European champions the Netherlands leaves Zambia with only a three-month training program to fall back on.

"The ideal situation would have been to test ourselves against strong teams", said Zambia FA media liaison officer Sydney Mungala. "Obviously, you can't substitute that level of competition with anything we have (in Zambia)."

Banda, the top scorer in the China Women's Super League last year, isn't fazed by the strength of the other three teams in the group.

"I feel great because I always want to compete with the best, so I just have to go and prove myself there. It's a tough group but we are not looking at the names of the teams - we are going there with our own aim and Zambians are expecting a lot from us."

The Copper Queens run to qualification in Tokyo has seen interest in women's football increase in Zambia, where it is hoped that Tokyo 2020, and its qualifying campaign, can mark the beginning of real change for the game in the Southern African nation.

"Their success has opened many windows of opportunities for other girls", said Mungala. "It has not been easy to get women to play football but the small steps they have made over time has inspired other girls to try football. 

"The first time we were at the World Cup in 2014, for under-17 players, our girls were not well remunerated and some of them dropped out. The few that survived from then are now at least being given some level of support.

"I think some of these girls are supporting their families beyond what the men do in their households."

"Our qualification means a lot - especially to the young ones coming up", Banda agreed. "It puts the women's league in country to another level. Everyone is fighting to find themselves at national level.

"We just have to continue with this same pace so that we can do our level best and we are hoping to have many more professionals come up from our team."

Banda isn't the only member of the Copper Queens with international experience. other squad players with international exposure include Hellen Mubanga who plays for Spanish side Zaragoza, and Kazakhstan-based Racheal Kundanaji, who boasts experience in Europe's Women's Champions League, and first-choice goalkeeper Hazel Nali, who plays in Israel.

Rachael Nachula, who represented Zambia at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, was hoping to come to Tokyo to support the side, but injury has prevented her from attending.

Despite the regrettable preparations, the Copper Queens believe they can shine suitably bright in Tokyo.

"We are not scared of any team - we can beat them", said assistant coach Florence Mwila. "I am very confident that we will not be knocked out in the group stage."