Zambia on the brink of their own 'Golden Generation'

Emmanuel Banda Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Leading figures from Zambia's trailblazing national Under-20 team have been making headway in Europe, with Emmanuel Banda finally coming good at Belgian side KV Oostende, while Enock Mwepu and Patson Daka continued with their steady progress in Austria.

Winger Fashion Sakala was also able to remain fit and active at Spartak Moskva II as Zambia's bright future looks to be taking shape.

The four players were key performers as Zambia won the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations tournament on home soil last year, before marching to the quarterfinals at the Under-20 World Cup event.

There was always the concern that these exciting prospects could struggle to fulfill their potential as is often the case with many young African stars, but so far things remain on script.

The most uplifting development for Zambia fans must be the story coming out of Belgium, where 20-year-old Banda had initially struggled for a foothold in the Oostende team as he battled injuries.

Banda had therefore remained the missing link as his former Under-20 colleagues graduated into the senior team to mastermind Zambia's thrilling run in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

Yet his quality is such that he was always unlikely to be restricted to the sidelines for long. Once fit, he has needed little time to impress. And he may well have already done enough to stake a claim for a place in the Zambia team when the 2019 AFCON qualifiers resume in September.

The former Nchanga Rangers midfielder finished the campaign strongly. He featured in eight of Oostende's nine matches in the end of season play-offs, starting six of those and scoring two goals in the process. Another five starts during the regular season had yielded one goal and two assists.

Often deployed in central midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation favoured at Oostende, Banda has proved a reliable performer with a pass accuracy rate of 82 percent for much of his time on the pitch.

He would certainly prove a worthy addition to the Chipolopolo midfield where Mwepu has often single-handedly shouldered the playmaking chores.

At Nchanga, Banda played as an attacking midfielder just behind the strikers and team manager Patrick Nkhata won't forget the potency the youngster displayed in dead-ball situations.

"He did very well for us here before he went to Europe," Nkhata told KweséESPN. "He was very good at set-pieces, but he is also a clever player who creates chances for his teammates. He is an all-round midfielder and works very hard for the team."

Elsewhere in Austria, one indisputable truth to be deduced from the end-of-season happenings was that Mwepu had become too good for that country's second tier. Mwepu joined Austrian giants Salzburg at the start of the season and was immediately assigned to feeder club Liefering to acclimatise and toughen up. That was never going to take him a whole season though, and after a return of six goals and five assists in 22 starts, the 20-year-old was deemed ready for the top-flight challenges with Salzburg.

He made seven appearances in the top tier, starting three matches and emerging with one goal and two assists.

But it was in the World Cup qualifiers that Zambia got the opportunity to witness the emergence of a truly prodigious midfield talent, as Mwepu combined with Sakala and Daka to transform a previously lukewarm attack into a fearsome one.

Chipolopolo had failed to qualify for the 2017 AFCON finals from a not-so-difficult pool. But following the introduction of the youthful trio, Zambia ended up finishing second behind Nigeria in the so-called 'Group of Death' which also included continental powerhouses Cameroon and Algeria in the race for Russia 2018.

Mwepu's Salzburg teammate Daka, the reigning African Young Player of the Year, struggled a little with injury, but ended the season with four goals and five assists for Liefering in 16 appearances. Daka plays mostly as a centre-forward, but is technically good enough to play as a supporting striker or even out wide.

In Russia, natural winger Sakala spent almost the entire season playing as an out-and-out striker with Spartak Moskva II, banging in ten goals and creating two more.

Sakala is known for his speed and skill out wide in Zambia, and his apparent adaptability could come in handy in future.

Better still for Zambia, the former Under-20 stars are maturing at a time when other attackers have been hitting form too, with Augustine Mulenga and Justine Shonga doing well at Orlando Pirates.

So is forgotten 25-year-old midfielder Evans Kangwa, who has started 17 of the last 19 matches for Arsenal Tula in the Russian top-flight.

At this rate it might not be too long before some in Zambia begin to talk of their own 'golden generation'.