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Around the World in Women's Soccer: Zambia's Copper Queens

Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: The first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.

In an Olympic tournament filled with familiar faces, Zambia's Copper Queens are the new kids on the block. Unlike fellow debutants Chile and the Netherlands, Zambia will make its first major tournament appearance in the Tokyo Olympics. And as the No. 104 team in the world, according to the FIFA Rankings, they will certainly have an uphill battle.

Despite the struggles, Zambia actually has one of the oldest women's soccer programs in Africa. The country has had a senior women's national team since 1983, although the team has gone through stretches without games. They qualified for the African Women's Cup of Nations in 1995 but either didn't enter a team or didn't qualify for nearly 20 years after that. Zambia appeared in both the 2014 and 2018 iterations of the tournament but didn't make it out of the group stage.

Things started to look up in 2019, when Zambia won the COFASA Championship, a tournament of Southern African teams. And then, in 2020, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) hosted its qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics. Most people expected Cameroon, which had performed decently at the 2019 Women's World Cup, to take the No. 1 spot and get automatic qualification. Zambia surprised everyone when they defeated the Lionesses in the finals on away goals and punched their ticket to Tokyo.

So, what changed? Zambia's launch seems to be tied mostly to a group of young, talented players. Barbra Banda, who recently turned 21, is the team captain and a striker in the Chinese Women's Super League. She was the team's top goal-scorer in the qualification campaign. Racheal Nachula (midfielder) and Hellen Mubanga (striker) are also big names on the team. Nachula scored 10 goals and earned four assists in the team's 2019 COSAFA Championship, but she was missing from the Copper Queens' most recent training camp. While she is 35, she's a former track runner and is relatively new to the soccer world. Both Nachula and Mubanga play for Spanish side Zaragoza CFF.

In addition to young talent, there has been a shift towards more consistent investment in women's soccer in Zambia. In 2021, the federation started the Women's Super Division, which replaced regional competitions as the highest level of women's soccer in the country. Qualification for the Olympics also spurred the formation of a committee to raise funds for the national team.

The path to Olympic success will be difficult for Zambia. They will come into the tournament ranked 104th in the world. The next lowest team is Chile, ranked 37th. The Copper Queens will play in Group F alongside Brazil, the Netherlands and China. All three of those teams have played in a Women's World Cup Final, while Zambia is still looking for their first qualification.

But even moderate success at the Tokyo Olympics could encourage development at home. If Zambia can prove that they can compete with the best in the world, it will only encourage the growth that we've seen in the last few years. The goal, according to team captain Barbra Banda, is to compete for the continental title at the African Cup of Nations, and, of course, a coveted World Cup spot.

No one expected Zambia to get here. They have nothing to lose. But they have everything to win.

If you want to follow along with the Copper Queens, you can find team accounts on Twitter and Instagram. They will kick off their Olympic tournament against the Netherlands at 7:00am EDT on Wednesday, July 21st.

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