On the Friday before the final of the Cup of Nations, Zambia's players met on a nondescript strip of beach in Libreville. They carried flowers and looked a little awkward as the media, keeping a reasonably respectful distance, followed. There was a moment when it seemed this might fall horribly flat, that it might turn into something tawdry, but then the players began to sing softly together. In an instant the mood changed, and as they laid their flowers in the sea to commemorate the 18 Zambian players and four coaching staff killed in 1993 in a plane crash just off the Gabonese coast, there was a sense of terrible, beautiful plangency. Two days later, the players were singing again, but this time they were in the centre-circle of the Stade de l'Amitie, keeping themselves calm during a penalty shoot-out against Côte d'Ivoire. 

The border guard flicked through my passport. "Where's the entry stamp?" he asked in French, tossing it back at me.

The entry stamp? Well, next to the visa, of course. But even as I took the passport from the counter to find it for him, I felt my insides turn cold. I thought back to arrival at Bata. The official had taken my fingerprints, had taken a photograph of me, but had he actually stamped it? There was a doubt, and as I searched desperately through the pale green pages, it developed into a certainty. The decision to travel to the final by land was looking increasingly foolish. The best case scenario, I assumed, was that I'd have to pay what might euphemistically be termed a fine. Or he might send me back to Bata. Or, worst of all, there might be a cell waiting for me in Mongomo.

Everybody apart from Rebecca, a photographer for AP, and I had taken the plane from Bata after the semi-final, heading either to Malabo for the third-place play-off or to the Gabonese capital Libreville for the final. But planes were expensive, unreliable and, well, boring. There were two possible land routes. We could head south from Bata to Cogo, take a pirogue across the estuary and pick up a car to Libreville on the other side. That would take around six hours plus negotiating time. A few others had done it, but we'd been warned that the boatmen operated a cartel and would charge absurd fees. Besides, we'd seen the coast; we wanted to see the interior. To do that, though, we needed a driver with the right papers to travel through both Equatorial Guinea and Gabon; three days of hunting failed to turn one up. 

We ummed and ahhed between the two routes. Cogo gave us breathing space: if it went wrong we could always head back to Bata and take a flight. Mongomo sounded more interesting. My mind was made up that morning as we changed money in a Lebanese shop. Lebanese shops always seem to act as information exchanges, so we asked there about a driver. They couldn't recommend one, but one local man told us he always went via Mongomo. "I can't go by Cogo," he said. "Not any more. Two years ago, my mother went that way. The sea was rough and the boatman was drunk. The pirogue capsized and she drowned." 

There was still the problem of a driver, but we could get to the border easily enough. Then it was a case of finding a lift on to Oyem, where we were fairly sure we'd be able to find a driver or, if not, at the very least a public bus, slow and difficult as that would have been with Rebecca's photographic equipment. We made the decision over lunch at the French Cultural Institute: "Fuck it, let's just go."

The drive to Mongomo took three hours and could hardly have gone more smoothly. It's a beautiful route, passing through thick tropical forest that occasionally opens out to provide breathtaking views of the mountains. Usually you'd need permits to travel outside of the major cities, permits that would take weeks to acquire if they could be processed at all. For the Cup of Nations, those regulations had been relaxed, the police ordered to take a much more liberal line. We were stopped at four checkpoints, but at each one a flash of our accreditation badges and a few cheery lines about what a good right-back Kily was were enough to get us through. 

We arrived in Mongomo, the home town of the president, Obiang Nguema, just as night was falling, coming over the brow of a hill to see, freakish in the darkness, a large modern hotel to the right of the road and, on rising ground to the left, a vast floodlit basilica with a huge dome and extensive cloisters. Obiang had built it three years ago to try to persuade the pope to visit on his tour of west Africa. He failed and it now stands as yet another incongruous reminder of where the wealth in Equatorial Guinea lies. The centre of town has been modelled on an Italian piazza, complete with a clock-tower that might have looked slightly less tacky if it hadn't been illuminated by ever-changing coloured lights. All around were the typical low shacks, bars and chicken-stalls of west central Africa.

After a comfortable night in what was easily the best and emptiest African hotel I've ever stayed in, we headed up to the border early the next morning. And that was when the problems began.

It had been feared that Equatorial Guinea would be a disaster as hosts. They were ranked 151st in the world, making them significantly the worst side in the tournament according to Fifa. Only three of their squad were actually born in Equatorial Guinea, the rest drawn from across the globe and comprised of those with Equatoguinean heritage and those happy to accept a passport of convenience. Their coach, Henri Michel, had resigned a fortnight before, citing unacceptable interference from above. He was replaced by the Brazilian Gilson Paulo. With rumours of a camp split between the Equatoguineans and the rest, his task seemed impossible.

The co-hosts opponents in their opening game were Libya, a team brought together by the uprising against Muammar Gaddaffi. Three of the squad that had played in qualifying fought on the front line. Only one made it to the finals: Walid Al Kahatroushi. The midfielder Ahmed Al Saghir missed out after being shot in the shoulder; the goalkeeper Guma Mousa survived the fighting only to damage knee ligaments in a training game against a league side in Tunisia. A number of players, including Tariq Al Taib, the 34 year old widely held still to be Libya's best midfielder, were left out for having backed Gaddaffi. Libya's coach Marcos Paqueta insisted Al Taib was "too old", but most agreed he was omitted for having described the rebels as "rats" and "dogs". 

They may have been missing personnel, but what Libya had shown in qualifying was a doggedness, a desire to fight for the new nation. They looked the more coherent side in the early stages against Equatorial Guinea, but the hosts had an exuberance, a gleeful running style that, though unsophisticated, clearly unsettled Libya's back four. Eventually it was that enthusiasm that won out, Javier Balboa running on to Javier Ekedo's through-ball to shape in a superb sidefoot finish five minutes from time. 

It was the second game, though, that provided the real lump in the throat moment. Torrential rain had led to a 75-minute delay and left the pitch soaked. As Zambia chased a winner in the day's opening game, their players were reduced to flicking the ball up and volleying it into the box. The puritans moaned and decried it as a farce; everybody else just sat back and enjoyed the fun, reasoning that football isn't just about tiki-taka on carpet, but also about lion-hearted slogging through the mud.

Senegal should have been out of sight by half-time. They were denied a penalty when Laurence Doe tripped Issiar Ndia, Demba Ba put two fine chances just wide and Danilo made an excellent save to thwart Papiss Demba Cissé. It seemed just a matter of time before the goal that would prompt an avalanche arrived, but the longer it went without coming, the more it came to seem it would never happen. Senegal, becoming increasingly desperate, grew ragged. They had a warning when Ekanga's square ball to Fidjeu, which would have left the forward with a clear strike on goal, failed to reach him only because of the surface water.

That was after 58 minutes, and it made the unthinkable thinkable. Four minutes later, it happened. Kily, Equatorial Guinea's adventurous right-back, found space and sent over a perfect cross that eluded Bouna Coundoul, the Senegal goalkeeper, leaving Randy to head into an empty net. Senegal kept fighting, but they lacked their earlier flow. Moussa Sow headed a Mamadou Niang cross just wide and then, finally, just when it seemed they'd given up hope, Sow equalised in the last minute, hooking in as Niang's shot was blocked.

The locals were deflated. There was a suggestion of offside. Somebody pointed out that Zambia and Equatorial Guinea could play out a draw that would see both through. And then Ekanga laid the ball square to Kily, a little over 25 yards out.

Perhaps Senegal, having dragged themselves forward through the mud for 90 minutes, were exhausted. Perhaps, having attacked for so long, the thought of defending seemed beyond them. Perhaps they were simply waiting for the right-back from Langreo in the Spanish fourth flight to belt the ball into the stand so they could take the goal-kick and launch another attack.

But Kily didn't belt the ball into the stand. Kily, given space by Senegal, enjoyed one of those moments when everything comes together. He must have been shattered, having flogged himself up and down the right flank. He must have been as deflated as everybody else when Senegal equalised. But here, here he had a chance to put that right. Not a big chance — it required him to strike the ball perfectly — but a chance. And he took it, striking the ball slightly to the outside of his right instep so the ball flashed with just a trace of left-to-right swerve beyond the grope of Coundoul and into the top corner. 

After all the doubts, it was a goal that redeemed the tournament. Whatever you may think of the Obiang government, there's no reason to deny the Equatoguinean people their moment of joy.

Equatorial Guinea does not have the best of reputations. It comprises an island, Bioko, on which stands the capital, Malabo, and a small square of land between Cameroon and Gabon. It is the third smallest country in Africa and, until the discovery of oil in the mid-nineties, one of the least desirable. It belonged to Spain for two centuries, most of which it spent failing to sell it, even if the export of cocoa made it one of the less poor parts of the continent.

Independence was granted — with, you suspect, a large sigh of relief on the part of Franco — in 1968. The first elections were won by Macias Nguema, the son of a well-respected but brutal witch-doctor known as His Saintly Father. He had done badly at a Spanish mission school, but found work as a minor bureaucrat and mayor of a small town before being groomed for the presidency by Spaniards who thought he'd be sympathetic to their interests.

As in so many other former colonies, democracy was short-lived — Francoist Spain was hardly the best teacher — and Macias soon set about neutralising his political rivals. Most gruesomely, one had his legs broken and was starved to death. Macias became increasingly paranoid, and regularly purged his cabinet. So many people attempted to flee that he banned access to the coast and had the main road out of the mainland part of the country mined. One of those who did get out was the former Arsenal full-back Lauren, whose mother was pregnant with him when she fled to Cameroon after her husband, who was a senior politician, was arrested. With the help of a relative in the army, Lauren's father escaped from jail and made it to Cameroon and then Spain.

In total around 100,000 people, around a third of the population, left. In the 19th century, when malaria and yellow fever had stalked the island, the handful of colonialists who bothered to visit described Bioko as "Death's waiting room". It became such again. Macias decided western medicine was "unAfrican" and banned it, allowing diseases such as leprosy to flourish where once they had been all but eliminated. War was waged against education. Schools and newspapers were closed. Food was scarce and there was rarely any electricity at night. Macias, as a Fang, persecuted the Bubis, the other major ethnic group. He awarded himself increasingly baroque titles, and specialised in memorable acts of cruelty, such as executing 150 dissidents in the stadium in Malabo on Christmas Day 1975 while a band played "Those were the Days". He ransomed foreign prisoners and when, in 1976, a Soviet jet crashed into Mount Cameroon, the volcano that dominates Bioko, he refused to release any bodies until $5m had been paid in compensation for damage to the mountain. It's widely rumoured he was a cannibal. In short, Macias was the model of the tin-pot African dictator.

As such, he drew coup attempts — real ones, as well as those he imagined. Frederick Forsyth writes of one such attempt in his 1974 novel The Dogs of War, supposedly a fictional account of an attack on "Zangaro", a made-up African state clearly based on Equatorial Guinea. In The Wonga Coup, Adam Roberts suggests The Dogs of War is actually a detailed and accurate account of a genuine attempt to topple Macias a year earlier, which Forsyth may have partly financed, although he insists the £100,000 he paid to various arms dealers and mercenaries was purely for information.

Macias ruled for six more years, becoming increasingly mad. He was partially blind and partially deaf and was prone to twitches and jerks. He would talk to those he had killed, sometimes demanding places be set for them at dinner. His rule was dependent on the support of his nephew, Obiang Nguema, the commander of the national guard and the military governor of Fernando Po (as Bioko was then known). By 1979, Macias had retreated to a fortified villa in Mongomo, on the mainland. Eventually he stopped paying the military, and had officers who asked for their salaries shot. He was deposed on 3 August 1979 by Obiang, and fled with suitcases full of money to a wooden hut, where he took villagers hostage and prepared for his last battle in a bamboo bunker. He was finally captured after fierce fighting in the jungle in which hundreds were killed. The hut burned down, destroying somewhere between $60m and $150m, the country's entire foreign reserves.

Imprisoned in a cage suspended from the roof, Macias was tried in the cinema in Malabo. Convicted of over 500 murders, he was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad. Obiang had been — at the very least — complicit in the previous regime's atrocities and, if he seemed moderate by comparison, that wasn't saying much. 

Life pottered on in Equatorial Guinea until the mid-nineties, when the discovery of oil produced a sudden, barely conceivable influx of wealth. Most of it remains in the hands of a select few. Obiang's sympathisers point out that he has built roads and hospitals and has encouraged investment from, particularly, China and the USA. Others note that in June 2005, to take just one example, Obiang's son Teodorin bought a Lamborghini and two Bentleys to park outside his $4m mansion in Cape Town. On another celebrated occasion, he invited French journalists to watch him buy 30 tailored suits in one afternoon spree in Paris

With the power lying with one family, Equatorial Guinea has proved tempting to those seeking to help themselves to a slice of the oil revenues. Most notably, in 2004 the British former-SAS officer Simon Mann led a coup attempt that was allegedly partly financed by Mark Thatcher. Believing he had the tacit support of the Spanish, US and South African governments, he flew with a few dozen mercenaries to Harare, where he was intercepted and jailed. Eventually extradited to Equatorial Guinea, he served two years in the notorious Black Beach jail before being released in November 2009.

That Zambia might be something special first became apparent at the 1988 Olympics, Kalusha Bwalya scoring a hat-trick as they thrashed a strong Italy side 4-0. It was a result that reverberated; this wasn't a 1-0 freak achieved through 89 minutes of defending and one lucky breakaway: it was a win based on complete domination. Kalusha (Bwalya is such a common surname in Zambia that he's widely known by his first name – there were two other Bwalyas in the side that beat Italy; Kalusha's brother Joel and the unrelated Johnson, who scored the other goal) was the star of that side, a technically gifted and powerful forward. When he was 20, he was spotted by a Belgian scout and moved from his hometown club of Mufulira to Cercle Brugge, and then, after the Olympics, to PSV Eindhoven. It was a transfer that saved his life.

A defeat away to Tunisia in their final qualifier meant Zambia missed out on the 1990 World Cup, but their football generally was lifted by the Olympics. Nkana Red Devils reached the African Champions Cup final in 1990 and Power Rangers won the African Cup-Winners' Cup the following year. The eighties had seen significant investment in the sport both directly from the government and from the nationalised copper industry, spurred by the fact that the president, Kenneth Kaunda, so clearly loved football. Many politicians attach themselves to the game, but his passion was genuine, and he would turn up to watch lower league fixtures for no reason other than that he enjoyed it. So closely associated was Kaunda with the national team that it became known as the KK XI.

He ruled Zambia for 27 years, but by the late eighties the economy was a mess, partly because the end of the Cold War made Kaunda's version of socialism unworkable. Zambia had to withdraw from hosting the 1988 Cup of Nations when funding ran out and Kaunda was finally voted out of office in 1991. As the copper mines passed into private hands, financing for football began to dry up. Travel to away games became increasingly difficult, with the national federation (FAZ) lacking the funds to charter planes or even to pay for seats on passenger aircraft. Frequently they would turn to the Zambian Air Force (ZAF) and ask to borrow a jet. Their poverty wasn't just a result of economic circumstance; in August 1992, shortly before World Cup qualifying began, the chairman of the FAZ, Jabes Zulu, and an associate, Wilfrid Monani, were suspended after funds earned on a tour of Korea vanished.

Zambia won their first two games in the first-qualifying phase, but then faced a trip to Madagascar. As so often, they ended up borrowing a Buffalo from the ZAF. When they stopped for refuelling in Malawi, there was a dispute over payment. After hours trapped on the runway, the plane eventually took off again for the five-hour trip over the Indian Ocean. The pilot insisted the players should wear their life-jackets. The players joked about it, and Johnson Bwalya took some light-hearted photographs, but there was an awareness that this wasn't really something to laugh about. "The boys," Kalusha told Ian Hawkey in The Feet of the Chameleon, "always used to say, 'This plane will kill us some day.'"

Zambia lost that game, which led to Samuel Nhdlovu being sacked as coach. His replacement, Godfrey Chitalu, then fell ill, but as he recovered so did the team. But not the FAZ's finances. Flying home on the Buffalo from a Cup of Nations qualifier from Mauritius, the young forward Kelvin Mutale spoke to the journalist Beauty Lupiya, telling her that even if the plane crashed they'd be safe because it would float. She told him not to be so morbid, but noticed how the plane struggled to gain altitude.

A week later, the players boarded the plane again for the game against Senegal. Kalusha and Charles Musonda of Anderlecht had missed the Mauritius game and so were to make their own way to West Africa. The plane's captain, Feston M'hone, wanted to fly from Lusaka to Brazzaville, then on to Libreville and Abidjan before finally arriving in Dakar, the sheer number of refuelling stops suggesting how unsuitable a vehicle it was for the journey. There was, as so often, a delay, because as a military craft the Buffalo was denied permission to cross Congolese air space. 

The decision was taken to fly directly to Libreville. The Buffalo landed and refuelled. According to the Gabonese Minister of Transport it underwent routine checks and then took off again. Two minutes later, it exploded, killing all five crew and 25 passengers. Whether the Buffalo floated or not was irrelevant. Mutale, then 23, was one of those killed. Six members of the 88 Olympic squad, including the goalkeeper Efford Chabala died. So too did the 19-year-old Moses Chikwalakwala, Zambia's Young Player of the Year in 1992. And so did the 24-year-old forward Timothy Mwitwa, who left a pregnant wife, Cleopatra. She went into labour on the day of the mass funeral.

There were claims the plane had been shot down by the Gabonese military, mistaking it for an invasionary force (or, in another version of the tale, of a political opponent of the president Omar Bongo). Diplomatic relations between Gabon and Zambia were shattered, neither country wanting to pay for an investigation and each trying to put the blame on the other. There were even protests in Libreville that mortuary facilities were being used for the Zambians rather than for local people. Being a military plane, there was no black box. Eventually, in 2003 the official report was released. It was inconclusive, but blamed a defect in the left engine.

Kalusha became the centrepiece of a new team, which came to be known not as the KK XI, but as the Chipolopolo, the Copper-headed Bullets. Remarkably, under two Danish coaches and then Ian Porterfield, a young side rallied. Kalusha scored an equaliser in Zimbabwe that took Zambia to the 1994 Nations Cup. They fought back in World Cup qualifying, but were denied an emotional qualification when they lost to Morocco in their final game. Twice Zambia hit the post, and they also protested about the refereeing of Jean-Fidel Diramba who, by a dreadful quirk, was Gabonese. "Innuendoes against Gabon," the Times of Zambia wrote, "will continue to fly for as long as memories of the crash, the frustrated searchers, the cynical, almost triumphant grin of a referee named Diramba linger on in the Zambian mind." 

There was still the Cup of Nations. Zambia were impressive, seemed to have momentum. They reached the semi-final, and beat Mali 4-0. But the Nigeria of Sunday Oliseh, Rashidi Yekini and Jay-Jay Okocha were too strong in the final and won 2-1. And for that team, that was that.

Kalusha is now president of the FAZ. It was as vice-president, after the failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, that he performed his greatest deed for Zambian football, putting together a side from the youth ranks and urging the administration to stick by them for at least four years. In African football, a little long-term planning goes a long way. Zambia were impressive in Angola in 2010, and had the better of a quarter-final against Nigeria before losing on penalties. That they might be even better this time round became apparent in their opening game, as they picked apart a much-fancied Senegal side on the break, the centre-forward Emmanuel Mayuka and the exciting left-sided midfielder Rainford Kalaba scoring within the opening 21 minutes.

They followed that up with a 2-2 draw in a torrential rainstorm against Libya, leaving them needing a win over Equatorial Guinea in their final match to top the group. As Hervé Renard, their French coach, pointed out, his side had never lost a Cup of Nations game when he wore a white shirt (in Angola, Zambia had lost only to Cameroon, and on that occasion he had switched to blue). Suddenly Hervé's shirt, unbuttoned the requisite two buttons form the collar, became a totemic item.

Remarkably, the drama of Kily's goal was surpassed two days later. In beating Niger 2-0 in their opening game, Gabon had suggested they were perhaps good enough not merely to be plucky hosts but potential champions. They played with pace and fluidity, the link-up between the overlapping right-back Edmond Mouele and the right-sided of three mobile forwards Stéphane Nguéma, in particular, catching the eye. The raw attributes of forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, once of AC Milan and now at Saint-Étienne, cleverly deployed on the left so he could attack the back post, are well known, but here he showed an intelligence and control that suggested he was maturing into his ability.

It was against Morocco in their second game, though, that Gabon really showed their mettle. Morocco were much fancied, part of a clutch of sides, along with Tunisia and Senegal, ranked as contenders if Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana slipped up. They had been a little unfortunate to lose to Tunisia in their opening game, undone by their own profligacy in front of goal and by a superb winner from Youssef Msakni.

At half-time against Gabon, though, they led, Houssine Kharja having run on to a pass from the playmaker Younès Belhanda, turned Mouele as he tried to cover for Rémy Ebanega, and finished neatly. Half-time saw the introduction of Daniel Cousin, 34 years of age and significantly heftier than he had been in his Rangers pomp, and his aerial presence turned the game. Gabon attacked in great waves, both with long balls and with sweeping crosses, blow after blow landing until Morocco finally succumbed with 13 minutes remaining. Yet another cross was only half-cleared and Aubameyang, 15 yards out, smashed in an emphatic volley.

Fans poured from the stands onto the running track around the pitch. In the VIP area, Sylvia Bongo, the president's wife, stood, arms aloft, in celebration. It took more than two minutes for the game to restart. Morocco initially went backwards, presumably looking to hold the ball and draw some of the heat from the atmosphere. The Gabonese wave overwhelmed them, though, and they surrendered possession. Aubameyang crossed, Cousin turned sharply and tucked a shot between Mehdi Benatia's legs and in off the post. From the game restarting to the ball crossing the line took 36 seconds. The celebrations reached an unimaginable new pitch of intensity.

But there was more. Morocco, somehow, rallied. In the final minute, Belhanda shot, the ball striking the thigh of Charly Moussono and cannoning into his hand. It was borderline whether it could be deemed deliberate, but the Gambian referee Bakary Gassama was admirably decisive. Even if you disagreed with his judgement — as, having reviewed the replay, I think I do — it spoke volumes for the standard of refereeing at the tournament that he was prepared in an atmosphere like that to give a late penalty against the home team. Kharja calmly sent Didier Ovono the wrong way from the spot.

Gabon resumed the assault. Morocco wasted time. Gassama added it on. In the sixth added minute, Benatia clattered through the back of André Poko on the left corner of the box. It was a crude, nonsensical foul, likely only to cause injury and put his side under pressure. Poko had to go off, delaying the free-kick. Bruno Mbanangoyé had almost two minutes to measure his shot, which he delivered perfectly, whipping his shot over the wall and into the top left corner. On the touchline Gernot Rohr, the impassive coach of Gabon, allowed himself a gentle smile, stretching out a hand and urging his players to calm down. There was nothing calm about the writhing yellow shirts in the stand, though, not in the president's box, where Ali Bongo waved manically.

Almost unnoticed the final whistle blew, Gabon were in the quarter-final, Morocco were out, and what was probably the finest, most dramatic game in any major international tournament in the last decade was over. After the protracted tedium of Angola, a game that will never be forgotten by those who were there came as a great relief. The rest of the tournament couldn't live up to the heights of those three days, but at least this was a tournament that had heights.

A couple of years ago, Rebecca was detained by police for photographing a tailor's shop in a market in Malabo, despite having permission. She was released only when she deleted the shots. Fortunately, she'd managed to delete more inflammatory shots of the slums in the car on the way to the police station. Back then, she said, you didn't dare make eye contact with police for fear they would react by taking a phone or a camera or lashing out with the batons they all carried. Orders had clearly gone out to them to calm down.

Malabo remains a very odd place. The stadium was in Banapa, about 10 minutes south of the centre of town. The road linking the two was lined with luxury apartments, apparently empty, while behind them stretched slums. They seemed quite orderly, well-maintained slums — Kily's comment that in Equatorial Guinea there was "poverty but not starvation" sounded about right — but the juxtaposition was uncomfortable. And besides, given the CIA World Factbook for 2010 ranks Equatorial Guinea as the 21st richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capital (derived from purchasing power parity), ahead of Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and France, there's no reason why there should be slums at all.

On a rare quiet day, we headed down the coast and inland, over the ridge of Pico Baca, in search of a monkey sanctuary. We never found it, and not just because I confused the Spanish words for monkey and monk. We reached Moka, the village where the park was supposed to be, but there was no sign of it, so we kept driving, following the road until we ended up going through an orange concrete gateway into a large space where a large house was being built. The orange concrete should have been warning enough. Obiang loves the colour: both his palace in Malabo and the 52 villas he built for the presidents attending the African Union congress at Sipopo in 2011 are orange. As a solider chased us out, the realisation dawned that this was yet another palace under construction. We were told to head back into the village and register, but as we returned, we saw a road off to the left. Checking nobody was following us we took it, headed 40-50 yards into the forest and came upon a T-junction. To the right, the road simply stopped, but the left it was broad and straight and well-marked. We followed it, vaguely aware we were going back towards the palace. Something felt wrong: it was too straight, too flat. We saw what appeared to be a roundabout in front of us; as we got closer, it turned out it was a helipad. And that's when the thought occurred that this wasn't a road at all but an airstrip, or at least a road that could be used as an airstrip, presumably built for Obiang's private use. We swiftly turned round and made for the village, a ramshackle place of wooden huts, mud roads and one extraordinary church which had a roof and a spire but no walls. 

That contrast of wealth and poverty was everywhere. It was about 10 minutes from my hotel to the stadium, a walk that went from large modern concrete buildings, through low shacks and stalls selling beer and chicken, past a patch of waste ground where two goats tethered to the bumper of a derelict car grazed dyspeptically, on to a major six-lane road and then in to a modern sports complex that included not just the stadium but also a sports hall and a swimming pool. 

The stadium there was small, with a capacity of just 15,000, which was probably about right for the interest shown by the local populace. Outside of Bata Equatorial Guinea offered nothing like the same threat. The captain, Juvenal, admitted fans were nothing like as "hot" in the capital. It didn't seem full for a disappointingly tame game against Zambia, who comfortably held the co-hosts at arm's length in the first half before finding a winner with a low Christopher Katongo shot in the second. That condemned Equatorial Guinea to another game in Malabo, this time against Côte d'Ivoire. When they'd first arrived on Bioko, Equatorial Guinea had ended up staying in the same hotel as the Ivorians in Sipopo.  "We took photographs with them," Kily said. "They treated us very well." Which pretty much summed up the difference: the glamorous Premier League stars against the amateurs from the lower leagues in Spain.  

Sipopo itself was another of Obiang's projects. He hosted the African Union congress there, and had an artificial beach built to compliment the hotel. In the bay, locals still fish from their canoes, paddling around under the gaze of a gunboat that guards the harbour.

Equatorial Guinea moved out of the hotel, but the relationship of autograph-hunters to celebrities seemed replicated on the pitch, an atmosphere not helped by a crowd that reacted with rapturous applause to even the simplest clearances. Drogba had already missed a penalty when he capitalised on a mistake by the centre-back Rui, turned inside him and his central defensive partner Lawrence Doe and finished powerfully and calmly. As they had in every previous game, having gone ahead, Côte d'Ivoire sat back, but this time they added two further goals, Drogba heading in a Yaya Touré delivery before Touré bent another free-kick in off the inside of the post.

It was a typical performance from the Ivorians, who had adopted a self-consciously risk-averse approach from the start. For six years they have been burdened by expectation, by the awareness that it will be a long time, if ever, before they again have a generation of players as gifted as the Tourés, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Dider Zokora, Emmanuel Eboué and Gervinho. 

They should have won in Egypt in 2006, Drogba, who had had a superb tournament, missing a sitter 10 minutes from time in the final and then having his penalty saved in the shootout as Côte d'Ivoire lost to the hosts. Two years later, in Ghana, they were strong favourites, bludgeoned their way through the early rounds, beating Benin 4-1 and Guinea 5-0, before running into an Amr Zaki-inspired Egypt in the semi-final. The Pharaohs won 4-1, and Kolo Touré seems never quite to recovered. Two years later, Côte d'Ivoire beat the eventual finalists Ghana 3-1 in the group stage, but somehow contrived to lose to Algeria in the quarter-final, conceding an equaliser in injury-time and then, unable to lift themselves, what turned out to be the winner two minutes into extra-time. 

The Leicester centre-back Sol Bamba admitted that game played on their minds no matter how hard they tried not to think of it, and most of the talk in the build up concerned itself with the need to put past traumas behind them – something that, of course, kept those traumas always on the surface. François Zahoui, the Côte d'Ivoire coach, even admitted his side had been guilty of complacency in the past. He seemed determined nobody should ever say that of his side. They played football stripped to the essentials, eliminating risk as far as they could. The focus became on, as Bamba put it in his incongruous east of Scotland accent, "keeping the back door shut", waiting for chances to occur rather than hunting them out.  

They set the tone of unspectacular solidity against Sudan in their first game, taking the lead six minutes before half-time as Didier Drogba nodded in a left-wing cross from Salomon Kalou. Yaya Touré had been playing high up the pitch till then, almost off Drogba with Jean-Jacques Gosso and Cheik Tioté holding, but for much of the second half he patrolled in front of the back four. It was necessary as well, for Sudan, having settled, began to hold possession well, the forward Mudathir El-Tahir clipping the bar with a curler and then having a header tipped over by Boubacar Barry. Côte d'Ivoire held out to win 1-0.

They went on to beat Burkina Faso 2-0, thanks to a Salomon Kalou strike and an own-goal, while Sudan kept alive their hopes of qualification with a 2-2 draw against Angola. There was an unpleasant arrogance about Angola, a sense of entitlement that was never really justified on the pitch. Manucho looked sharp and scored three goals, but in both their 2-1 win over Burkina Faso and against Sudan, they scored only through defensive errors.

Sudan, meanwhile, with an entirely domestic-based squad, were rather more impressive than many had expected. They were neat and composed in midfield and in Mudathir and Muhannad Tahir had two genuinely threatening strikers. Their problem seemed almost a lack of self-belief as much as anything, as though panic occasionally set in leading them to soft concessions. When they forgot themselves and just played, there was a pleasing fluency to their football. 

Angola needed a point against Côte d'Ivoire in their final group game to be sure of reaching the quarter-final for the third successive tournament and turned up as though it were a formality. Côte d'Ivoire fielded a much-changed side, but were still far too good for them, Eboué tapping in after 32 minutes after Miguel had missed a Wilfried Bony cross before Dani Massunguni headed a long clearance over his own goalkeeper allowing Wilfried to run on and lash into an empty net. Two Mudather goals gave Sudan a 2-1 victory over Burkina, and that put them through at Angola's expense. The Angolan response was to deploy their own riot police — on secondment in Malabo for the duration of the tournament — to prevent journalists speaking to players in the post-game mixed zone. 

The hosts went out with more dignity, but barely a whimper. Nobody seemed too bothered: they'd gone far further than anybody expected. Ruslan Obiang Nsue, the head of the local organising committee, spoke boldly of the legacy of the tournament, and insisted there were plans for a government-subsidised championship. "We are studying the possibility of a professional league," he said. "The clubs are very small here so the federation is negotiating with the government a possible subsidy to try to bring in players from other countries, so that football is stronger. When you bring a player from Cameroon, Angola and pay €3000 a month, that will make the championship more attractive." Well, maybe.

Perhaps the training facilities will inspire a surge of interest, but the pitiful crowds for games not including the hosts suggests there is little interest — or at least, little interest beyond the glamour of the European game. If your regular experience of football is in a bar watching on television, then why make the effort to go to a stadium? Ticket prices of 5000 francs (£6.25 in a country in which, according to EG Watch, 70% of the population lives on under £1.60 a day) were only a further disincentive. In the end, fans were admitted to the semi-finals for free, but that was done so late and was so badly organised that the improvement was only slight.

Gabon had beaten Tunisia in a surprisingly brutal third group game, but their tournament came to an end in the quarter-final against a Mali side coached by Alain Giresse. The former France midfielder preceded Rohr as coach of Gabon, beginning their steady rise, and was roundly booed when his rumpled face appeared on the big screen. He reacted, or rather didn't react, with the magnificently Gallic indifference that characterised his demeanour throughout the tournament.

The hosts had the better of an edgy first half, Aubameyang hitting the post with a lob after being set through by Cousin. Ten minutes into the second, they took the lead, Aubameyang cutting the ball back for Eric Mouloungui, whose shot flicked in off Seydou Keita's thigh. Although Modibo Maïga drew a fine low save out of Didier Ovono, diving low to his right, the Gabonese surge that followed the goal threatened to overwhelm Mali. Cousin miscued in front of goal and hit the post with a chance he should have buried. Giresse remained phlegmatic.

But slowly, Mali came back. Giresse looked dispassionately on. A mistake from Moïse Brou Apanga let in Mustapha Yatabaré. Ovono saved Gabon once again. The goal, though, was coming and it arrived six minutes from time, Maïga heading down a right-wing cross for the substitute Cheick Diabaté, whose well-hit shot was past Ovono before he could get down to it. Extra-time failed to produce a winner, and so it went to penalties.

As so often, the ignominy of missing the decisive kick fell on the wrong person. Aubameyang had been superb in the tournament, quick and muscular, scoring three goals and offering an outlet from the back from a position to the left of centre. He was the star, feted to the extent that Sylvia Bongo wore an "Aubameyang 9" shirt. Up till that moment, he had delivered, but Soumbeïla Diakité, the Mali goalkeeper, read his stuttered run, and saved low to his left. Aubameyang stood alone and disconsolate in the centre-circle, barely able to watch as Bakaye Traoré put Mali ahead. Bruno Ecuele dinked in a panenka, which left Keita with a penalty to win it. He looked drained as he stepped up, but rolled his kick in confidently enough as Ovono went the wrong way.

For Aubameyang it was too much. He wept, openly and uncontrollably, and in the end had to be helped off the pitch by his father, himself a former Gabon international. Sylvia Bongo applauded sympathetically, while her husband sat glumly, arm resting on his splayed thighs. Often weeping footballers seem self-indulgent, spoiled brats kicking up a fuss because they've been denied yet another title; Aubameyang, though, elicited sympathy. Gabon will probably never again have such a good chance of winning a tournament. That was to a large extent because of Aubameyang, and yet the fact they went out was, however unfair it may be, incontrovertibly because of him. That is why penalties are so cruel. And who can imagine the pressure when the president's wife wears your shirt?

Still, his pain was soon placed into context by Keita, who broke down in tears during his post-match interview. "I'm appealing to the people to stop," he said. "It's not normal, we don't do that. We need peace, we are all Malians. The president of the republic needs to do the most he can to stop it. We are celebrating our win but at the same time we feel very sad. There is a sadness among the players."

That weekend, 20 people were confirmed to have been killed in clashes between Tuareg separatists and government troops near Timbuktu, while there had been rioting in the capital Bamako in protest at the army's inability to contain the rebel action. Around 15,000 Malians are believed to have fled into neighbouring Niger and Mauritania, with large numbers of Tuareg leaving Bamako for fear of reprisals.

The Tuareg have been fighting a separatist war in the north-east for years, with major outbreaks of fighting between 1990 and 1995 then from 2007 to 2009. They are a nomadic people, wandering across the desert regions of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, largely ignoring national borders. Colonel Gadaffi sponsored that second uprising, intending to destabilise the government in Bamako. After it was defeated, many of the rebels fled to Libya, where they helped shore up the Gadaffi regime. When Gadaffi fell, between 2000 and 4000 — depending whose account you believe — fled across the border into the mountains north-eastern Mali, laden with arms and cash. It's they who are behind the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (the north-eastern part of Mali comprising Timbuktu, Kidal and Gau). The Malian government accuses them of links with Al-Qaeda, although they deny it. 

My first Cup of Nations was in Mali in 2002 and I recall the country with great fondness, in particular Mopti, a sleepy town on the Niger that proudly declared itself "the Venice of Africa". George Weah played his final ever international there and, as the Liberia team bus drove across the causeway to the stadium, which stood in the middle of a marshy lagoon, he was welcomed by the local scout troop waving flags. Now the threat of kidnapping is so high that Mopti is a no-go area for foreigners. Half the country is effectively in a state of war.

As soon as Gabon conceded the equaliser, the thought had occurred that a Mali v Côte d'Ivoire semi-final wasn't going to be that interesting. I'd only arrived in Libreville that morning, catching a 3.30am flight from Malabo. I'd arranged a room in a house with other journalists. In Libreville, residential areas tend not to have addresses so I'd been given a mobile number to ring and told to ask for "Joel". It had a pleasing feel of the spy movie, but I can't say I had much confidence. Joel, though, answered his phone at the second ring, seemed to understand my hesitant French, and soon turned up to give me a lift.

Watching Ghana beat Tunisia on the TV in the press centre I idly searched flights online — nothing, but then many of the local companies don't have websites. When Ghana took the lead through John Mensah, I decided I'd go. Ghana v Zambia meant two Anglophone teams and I hadn't seen Ghana live; it seemed wrong to cover a final potentially having watched one team five times and the other not at all. But then Tunisia levelled through Saber Khelifa. Tunisia v Zambia sounded a lot less enticing. 

In extra-time the Tunisia goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi dropped the simplest of crosses and Dédé Ayew rolled in. The trip was back on and, as Tunisia lost their discipline, Aymen Abdennour being sent off for an elbow to Ayew's chin and Khalil Chemmam lucky to escape similar sanction moments later for a kick to Ayew's chest, it never looked like being off. Ayew, to his credit, responded to the attempt at intimidation by picking up the ball, darting through three challenges into the box, and then laying it off with a neat backheel. As his hair thins and his moustache thickens, he is looking increasingly like his father, Abedi Pelé, and he's playing more and more like him too.

So on the Monday morning, 28 hours after I'd arrived, a German journalist and I started looking for an agency that could sell me a ticket to Bata. That I even had a visa to get back into Equatorial Guinea seemed miraculous. I'd made initial inquiries about three months before the tournament began and was told that special tournament visas, allowing multiple entry to both countries, would be available from December. A little later, CAF sent out an email confirming that the tournament visas would be released on December 20. On December 19, a further email was sent out. The visas had been delayed, but would be ready soon. By the beginning of January I was starting to get a little anxious; after all, I'd already sorted out various bits of work and paid for flights, while hotels were asking for money transfers in advance.

Finally, word came through that Gabon would be releasing the tournament visas on January 9, but only to their embassies in Africa. If you were based elsewhere, you needed to get a letter from the local organising committee in Gabon (a whole new thicket of inefficiency to hack through), which you could then present at Libreville airport where the visa would be arranged. It wasn't, I confess, a plan that filled me with any great confidence, partly because a journalist friend of mine was once detained for several hours in a holding pen for suspected illegal immigrants at Libreville airport because he didn't have exactly the right documentation, and partly because I'm not convinced airline staff would even have let me on the plane without a visa. And, anyway, I was going first to Malabo, where a letter from Gabon was meaningless. 

At least Gabon, though, was doing something. The poor woman at the Equatoguinean embassy in London wearily repeated day after day that nobody had told her anything and she had no idea what was going on. Eventually, eight days before I left for Malabo, we decided it was best for me to apply for a standard Equatoguinean visa. Two days before I was due to leave, I was told my application had been rejected; I was apparently missing a particular letter from CAF that had never previously been mentioned. That day, I reconciled myself to the fact that I wouldn't be going. The next day, though, I got hold of that rarest of things: somebody in the CAF office with the wherewithal and inclination to make things happen. 

I went to the embassy, rang him on my mobile and handed it over to the woman behind the desk. What was said in their ten-minute conversation I have no idea, but something changed. The woman wrote down three phone numbers, smiled at me and told me to come back in two hours. When I did, she handed me the visa. It was the same with Angola two years ago; in the end I only got the visa because Manuel, the incredibly helpful official on the consular desk, opened up when he was supposed to be shut for Christmas, rang the local organising committee in Luanda, and shouted at somebody there until they sent the official letter he needed to process my visa (I don't speak Portuguese, but his tone suggested he'd become as frustrated by my daily visits as I had). I finally collected the Equatoguinean visa 16 hours before I flew, although by then the Malabo government had issued a letter similar to the Gabonese one to be presented at the airport. When I'd eventually arrived in Gabon, getting the tournament visa had proved simple enough, and that meant I could, at least in theory, travel freely between each country for the duration of the competition.

None of this might seem very relevant: that getting visas for some African nations is difficult is hardly a surprise. But my point is this: why did Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, and Angola before them, bid to host a Cup of Nations? Why did they invest hundreds of millions of pounds in lobbying and then building the necessary infrastructure? It was, fairly obviously, to help promote the country, to give the impression, as the Angola captain of 2010 Fabrice Akwa said, "that the country is not just about war, oil and poverty", to suggest that these are somehow normal countries ready to embrace foreign tourists and investment. Perhaps they even thought the tournament itself might draw fans and tourists. In which case, making it prohibitively difficult for journalists and visitors to get into the country probably isn't the best idea. If it was for security reasons, if everybody had to apply early so they could be rigorously checked, it might be justifiable, but it clearly wasn't: in the end I was waved through with minimal documentation — as, presumably, given the last-minute nature of the process, was everybody else. This was incompetence, pure and simple. When you see such a costly project stymied by such basic inefficiency, you fear not just from African football but for Africa itself. 

I found an agency at around 1030 that could get me on a flight at 1400, going first to São Tomé and then on to Malabo, where I'd have two hours to make a connection to Bata. The agency didn't take credit cards — few places in Gabon or Equatorial Guinea do — so I popped out to find a cash-point. I found one just over the road, but it swallowed my card. I went in to the bank next door and explained what had happened. "The man isn't here," said the woman at the desk. "Come back this afternoon." I explained I couldn't as I had a plane to catch. "Come back on Friday," she said. I actually went back the following Monday and, remarkably, the card was waiting for me.

Cursing, I went back to the agency. The German had decided not to travel, but he had enough cash on him to pay for my ticket, so I dashed back to the hotel, picked up my bag and went on to the airport. The flight began to board only a few minutes late, but when I got to the desk they stopped me. It turned out there was a group of Chinese passengers in São Tomé who needed to be brought back to Libreville, so they planned to fly there, pick them up, come back, and only then take the remaining eight passengers to Malabo.

I had no idea how far São Tomé was, so I looked it up and calculated that it could return as early as 1645, but that it had to turn up by 1715 if we were to have any chance of making the connection (assuming the connection left on time, which of course isn't common in Africa). It touched down at 1714. 

The Atlantic seemed to stretch on forever, dully and unchangingly grey, but we landed at 1850. As we disembarked to take the bus to the terminal, I saw another plane with the same livery boarding across the airfield. I asked if that was the Bata plane and, when the steward confirmed it was, I asked if I could just run across. He shook his head but shouted something into his radio. Within seconds a minibus turned up and the five of us for that flight piled in. "What about the bags?" somebody asked, so we all got off again and grabbed our things from the hold, before screeching over the rough tarmac to the other plane. Astonishingly, I touched down in Bata exactly on schedule.

There was just one problem: the official at Bata assumed I'd cleared immigration at Malabo. I hadn't.

Ghana had arrived at the Cup of Nations as second favourites, but aside from the second group match in which they beat Mali 2-0, they never really lived up to that. Injuries to John Mensah and Asmaoah Gyan, both of whom tried to play through the pain, clearly hadn't helped and with Isaac Vorsah carrying a two-game ban into the tournament and Mensah then being sent off for a professional foul against Botswana, their coach Goran Stevanović was unable to maintain any consistency of selection. What was notable before the semi-final against Zambia was how confident their players were. This wasn't the humble Ghana of two years ago at the Cup of Nations or even the World Cup; it would be going too far to call them arrogant, but there was an expectation of victory, as though Zambia were a hurdle that would inevitably fall before the preordained final against Côte d'Ivoire.

Except, as Renard kept saying, destiny favoured Zambia. From the moment he had brought his squad together on December 28 — one of the advantages of having a side with very few European-based players — they had talked about going to Libreville for the final. They sat deep against Ghana, frustrated them, got lucky as Asamoah Gyan missed a penalty and secured their win as Kalaba's forward surge created space for Mayuka, who turned and curled in a superb finish from just outside the box. As Ghana's players stood dejectedly by the side of the pitch, as though unable to believe they had lost, Davies Nkausu, a full-back who struggles to get a game for SuperSport United in South Africa, raced past them brandishing a Zambian flag. Christopher Katongo and the rest of the side soon followed, to dance together in the centre-circle.

In the other semi-final, Côte d'Ivoire completed a quotidian 1-0 win over Mali, Gervinho finally doing something right in an otherwise miserable tournament for him, spinning on halfway, nutmegging Ousmane Berthe, and running 50 yards unchallenged before slotting a finish inside the far post. The decision to go to Bata was emphatically justified.

"What can I do?" I asked in uncertain French, hoping the guard would offer a price to begin negotiations. He merely repeated that I needed an entry stamp. 

Rebecca, fortunately, speaks the language fluently and, as a seasoned war photographer is used to dealing with unhelpful officialdom. She explained I'd come in via Malabo and that immigration in Bata must have made a mistake, not realising I'd flown from Gabon.

The guard sighed. "How do I know he hasn't come in illegally?" he asked. "We have foreigners coming in through the bush."

"Really? English foreigners?" 

Rebecca asked with an incredulity so magnificent you could see the doubt take root in his face.

"And if he knew a route in through the bush, why would he be leaving this way?" The guard nodded thoughtfully. The production of my boarding passes from Libreville to Malabo and Malabo to Bata convinced him. He'd have to get the chief, he said, but there wouldn't be a problem. 

My hands were still shaking when he handed me the passport with the stamp.

At the Gabonese checkpoint, the only problem was the dimness of the guard, who took around 40 minutes to fill in a very simple form, and even then only completed it because his boss came in to find out why it was taking so long, clipped him around the top of the head and yanked out his earphones with an apologetic shrug at us.

We got a lift in the back of a pick-up on to Oyem, and then found a car there to drive us back the nine hours to Libreville, a glorious journey through the foothills on a road lined by banana and bamboo, like the illustration of a jungle in a children's book. Only on the outskirts of Libreville did we run into a problem, the not-uncommon issue of an African policeman who sees white people and smells bribes. Finding our papers frustratingly in order, he tried to fine the driver for not having a fire extinguisher before settling for the smaller charge of a technical breach of his taxi licence.

A couple of days later, a group of four of us in a taxi were stopped by the police. A South African photographer had left his passport in the house which, technically, is an offence. As he was trying to explain, the police chief came over. "Are you the man from the adverts?" he asked. We quickly agreed he was, and we were waved on our way. Only later did we realise he thought the photographer was Basile Boli, to whom he bears the vaguest of resemblances.

The song that had begun in the memorial ceremony on the beach ended in victory. Nobody really expected Zambia to win even if most of us, when pressed, would probably have admitted a slight preference that they should. This, after all, was not just a great underdog tale, but one of the great stories of strength of character and rebirth after tragedy. And then there was Renard, intense, self-ironic, charismatic and very, very French. That he was sacked after five months at Cambridge United in 2004 only makes his present popularity the more extraordinary. His return to Zambia last October, after Dario Bonetti had coached them through the qualifiers, was controversial, but the bond he had with his players was obvious. Renard is 20 years younger than Óscar Washington Tábarez, but the relationship he has with his players is similar to the el Maestro had with his Uruguayan team when they won the Copa América last summer: a stern but respected father, popular with his charges but not to be taken advantage of. If there was any doubt about that, it vanished when he expelled the midfielder Clifford Mulenga from the squad early in the tournament for refusing to apologise after breaching a curfew.

Midway through the first half of the final, Renard was so incensed at the high line played by his full-back Davies Nkausu that he thumped him in the chest. "We saw against Mali that if you leave 50m behind you, Gervinho will kill you," he explained. "I showed them that sequence, so I was furious he did not respect what I said. Perhaps it looks strange from the outside, but they know how I am. There's no problem. I think they need someone like this. If they had a coach who didn't react like this... they need to be pushed. Sometimes they are not very focused, but they can do magical things." Nkausu seemed unflustered, patting his coach on the shoulder as though encouraging him to calm down.

Throughout the tournament, Zambia were disciplined and well-organised, sticking to Renard's tactical plans. They had sat back against Ghana, but in the final, they took the initiative. Nathan Sinkala drew a fine low save out of Boubacar Barry after a clever corner routine as early as the second minute, and when Kalaba had a free-kick deflected just wide midway through the half, Zambia were so confident they began to indulge in a series of shimmies and flicks. Yaya Touré scuffed an effort just wide to offer a reminder of the Ivorian threat, but they seemed always tentative, as though the conservatism of their approach had become inhibitive.

That was always the problem for Zahoui. His no-risk policy was actually supremely risky because it could be validated only by success. If Côte d'Ivoire had at last lifted the trophy, he would have been the man whose inspired pragmatism ended a 20-year drought; as it was, he was just a coach who played boring football and lost.

As they had throughout the competition, Côte d'Ivoire waited for their opponents to make a mistake and, with 20 minutes remaining, it seemed they had as Isaac Chansa bundled over Gervinho in the box. Drogba had spurned a sitter in the 2006 final before missing his penalty in the shoot-out as Côte d'Ivoire lost to the hosts Egypt and, despite being the Ivorians' best player over the past six years, he was culpable again, firing his penalty high over the bar.

That gave Zambia renewed heart and early in extra-time Christopher Katongo, reaching a cross from his brother Felix, saw his sidefoot effort deflect onto the post off the studs of Barry. Neither side, though, could find a winner and so, for the fourth time in the last seven tournaments, the final went to penalties. As in 1992, when Côte d'Ivoire had last won, they had gone through the tournament unbeaten, but there was no repeat of the 11-10 shoot-out victory they enjoyed then over Ghana. 

The first 14 penalties were all scored, Drogba avoiding the ignominy of missing a second penalty in the game and Bamba being fortunate that he was allowed to take his kick again after Kennedy Mweene had come off his line in saving his first effort. But then there was a hesitation. Kolo Touré started to go forward, then stopped. Zahoui clearly asked Gervinho to step up. He refused. Touré took a long run, and had his shot saved low to his left by Mweene. And all the while the Zambian singing went on.

Kalaba had the chance to win it, but he flinched at history's approach, and skied his kick. Who knows what the consequences for his career might have been had he been the man to deny the fairy-story, but Gervinho, finally coaxed forward, hit his shot far too high. That left Stopila Sunzu to complete the most poignant of successes. He was still singing as he began his run-up, before sidefooting the ball firmly into the right side of the goal. 

"We talked about this when we first met in the camp," said Renard. "I said to them, 'You know there is something — we play first against Senegal and the plane was going to Senegal, and the final is in Libreville, where the plane was leaving from.' I can't explain it: it was written."

Football, though, doesn't just hand out sentimental favours; they must be earned. What happened in 1993 meant that Efford Chabala, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Kelvin 'Malaza' Mutale, Timothy Mwitwa, Numba Mwila, Richard Mwanza, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Kenan Simambe, Godfrey Kangwa, Winter Mumba and Patrick 'Bomber' Banda and coaching staff of Godfrey 'Ucar' Chitalu, Alex Chola, Wilson Mtonga and Wilson Makala never had the chance to lift a Cup of Nations. The present Zambia side, though, raised the perfect memorial.