Chanda – The dream has not ended yet

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At just 23, Grace Chanda has played at FIFA World Cup, Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, and now the Olympics beckons over the horizon.

In a space of six years, she has lived her football dream in the best way.

Chanda was also the first Zambian woman to score in a FIFA World Cup; in the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica, where the Copper Queens made their only female global tournament appearance to date.

She has since made gradual progression through the ranks, and her eight goals have inspired the Copper Queens to the 2020 Olympics Tokyo Games Women’s Football tournament finals.

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It is the first time for Zambia’s women to take part in the quadrennial multisport showpiece and the second for the nation since the men played in Seoul 1988.

Chanda’s eight goals in the Olympics qualifiers also saw her emerging as Africa’s top scorer in what was an onerous, five stage qualification process for the continent's lone automatic ticket.

“I felt great. I had a feeling that I would be scoring goals but did not expect to be the top scorer. It is a great honor,” Chanda said.

“I was actually expecting our captain Barbara (Banda) to be the top scorer. She thrives under pressure with her intelligent play and speed, unlike me. I have the skills, yes, but lack the pace. But I use my strength in space to the fullest.”

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The Copper Queens stunned favorites Cameroon on the last hurdle, winning 2-1 at home in Lusaka to qualify on away goals rule after a 4-4 aggregate draw.

That result left Cameroon to seek the bonus route to Tokyo via an Africa versus South America playoff against Chile.

“Cameroon is an experienced side, and their European-based players are technically gifted. But we fought very hard and were confident we would still qualify despite the first leg setback. We knew home ground advantage would be key and the twelfth man gave us hope. Firstly, the support we got on social media was amazing, and we could not afford to let them down. I remember we sang till late in camp to boost our morale on the game’s eve,” Chanda said.

“When the final whistle came, all we wanted to do was go straight to heaven first before we go to Tokyo. We were the underdogs; everyone’s money was on South Africa, Nigeria or Cameroon,” she added.

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Tokyo, though, will have to wait until the summer of 2021 when the rescheduled Olympics are due to be held after they were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Yes, COVID -19 disturbed our program, but it is a blessing in disguise. Now have time to recharge and plan for the Olympics,” Chanda noted.

“We are going to represent Africa and we promise the continent that we will not disappoint them. Yes, it is our first time to qualify and first time to play against European and American teams, but we will be banking on the support of the whole Africa.”

But Chanda will not be in a hurry to meet her idol; USA striker Alex Morgan when she gets to Tokyo.

“We will be ready for any team. But first, we just hope to avoid the USA in the group stage,” she said.

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Meanwhile, Chanda is one of six members of the class of 2014 who now form the bedrock of this third generation Zambia women’s senior setup.

That band of sisters has set the standard since graduating to the majors in 2017.

They produced Zambia’s best run at the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AFWCON) in Ghana 2018 despite a group stage exit. A 5-0 win over Equatorial Guinea was followed by a defeat to eventual champions Nigeria, before drawing with tournament runners-up South Africa.

When the final whistle came, all we wanted to do was go straight to heaven first before we go to Tokyo. Grace Chanda

"We felt honored to be the first Zambian girls’ team to go to a FIFA World Cup. Never in our wildest imagination did we think that women’s football was that big until we went there, and the crowds were amazing,” Chanda recalled the 2014 memories.

“There are at least six of us left from that team like Margret Belemu, Barbara Banda, Judy Zulu, Hazel Nali, Martha Tembo and me. It feels great that our careers have been progressing and we just had to step up to the challenge and prove that we could make it from the Under-17 to senior level.

"The World Cup experience was a great help when we qualified to the AFWCON in 2018. We had a good run but then we lost to Nigeria. The problem was that it was our generation’s first time to play against them, but we will be ready next time."

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The Class of 2014 with adding some players, including former 2008 Olympics 400 meters sprinter Rachel Nachula and her namesake Rachel Kundananji, have also seen Zambia knocking on the doors of regional big girls Banyana Banyana and perennial finalists Zimbabwe.

They finished third in 2017 regional COSAFA Women’s Cup, fourth in 2018 and collected their debut silver in 2019, losing 1-0 to nemesis and regional powerhouse South Africa.

“We are also nearly there against Banyana Banyana, there is just maybe one ingredient to go and we will match then. We are very close, and they know it too,” Chanda added.

Chanda also attributed the Copper Queens rapid rise over the last three years to the mentality and philosophy inculcated into them by veteran trainer Bruce Mwape who came to the women’s game for the first time in 2018.

Mwape is not only a father figure to his team, but also comes with vast experience from the men’s game, having won league titles and other silverware plus continental club cup experience as assistant coach of topflight sides Nchanga Rangers and Power Dynamos.

“We really appreciate him for raising the standard for us to this level. Previously it was mostly physical, but coach Bruce has brought that level of experience he has had coaching top men’s league teams, and we are enjoying this new level. He calls us his European team and we always laugh about that in camp,” Chanda noted.

We are going to represent Africa and we promise the continent that we will not disappoint them. Grace Chanda

Chanda’s personal story as a footballer started way back in 2008 in her hometown Ndola, where she initially played for Kalewa Queens, her school team Ndola Girls, before joining Zesco United where she has been since 2014.

Interestingly, Chanda - like her favorite Zambian player, the Chipolopolo star Patson Daka - is a product of 2013 Airtel Rising Stars under-17 talent search program.

She also has football genes, with her elder brother Howard being a former midfielder himself. But his career with lower ranks Ndola clubs was cut short due to injury.

“Howard supported me from the beginning and helped me with all the kits I needed,” she said.

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Her father is a construction worker and her mother a homemaker in a family of eight children.

“My dad is a builder; my mother is a housewife and I am now one of the bread winners through football. Football has made a huge difference to our lives as a family, especially with my travels with the national team,” she added.

But while football has brought economic enhancement to the Chanda household, Grace is not letting the frustration of seeing her compatriots leave for overseas, particularly Banda, Kundananji, Nachula, Misozi Zulu and Helen Mubanga.

“It does affect me, yes, that my friends have left, and I am still playing in Zambia. But I must stay positive; I know my time will also come to get an overseas contract. It will eventually come,” Chanda concluded.