FAIRYTALE Africa Cup of Nations champions Zambia will return to competitive action in June with 2014 World Cup qualifiers against recent rivals Sudan and Ghana.
The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) defeated the Sudanese Jediane Falcons and the Ghanaian Black Stars in the knockout stages of the African tournament this month before a shoot-out triumph over favourites Ivory Coast in the final.
Not among the pre-tournament favourites, a Zambian team coached by Frenchman Herve Renard and containing just one player with a European first division club won four matches and drew two for a first title.
Stoppila Sunzu, captain Christopher Katongo and James Chamanga scored in a 3-0 win over 10-man Sudan while Kennedy Mweene saved a Asamoah Gyan spot kick before Emmanuel Mayuka snatched the late semifinal winner against Ghana.
Zambia, Sudan and Ghana are in Group D with little Lesotho and only the winners of the six-round mini-league advance to the final qualifying phase for the global football showcase in Brazil.
It looks the toughest of the 10 groups with Zambia and Sudan trying to reach the finals for the first time and Ghana for the third consecutive time after a first round departure in 2006 and a quarterfinals exit two years ago.
The African champions are assured of a hot reception in Khartoum early June with temperatures often topping 40°C, and a comment by Renard that Sudan play sleep-inducing football can only spice up the occasion.
Zambia came closest to reaching the World Cup 19 years ago when they travelled to Morocco needing a draw but lost narrowly with a team hastily built after a crash off the Gabonese coast killed most of the national stars.
After confronting Sudan, Zambia host Ghana a week later and then the World Cup elimination process enters an eight-month hibernation until after the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa next January and February.
Ivory Coast remain the chokers of African football after four consecutive failures to justify being favourites at the Cup of Nations and getting to a third World Cup on the trot will not be easy with Morocco in the way.
The Atlas Lions are also licking Cup of Nations wounds after a shock first-round exit after losses to Tunisia and co-hosts Gabon and will relish hosting Didier Drogba and other Ivorian stars in June.
Senegal are another country hoping the World Cup can banish Cup of Nations blues. But the Teranga Lions must contend with a Ugandan side constantly improving under Scottish coach Bobby Williamson and an Angolan outfit wanting to bounce back after a timid first-round exit from the Afcon.
Mali are in Group H with two-time World Cup qualifiers Algeria, a Rwanda side revitalised by Serb coach Milutin Sredojevic and Benin.
Former African champions Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa were shock absentees from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea after coming up short in the qualifiers and this makes World Cup success imperative for the quartet.
Cameroon must get the better of DRC, Togo and Libya; Egypt face Guinea, Zimbabwe and Mozambique; Nigeria tackle Namibia, Kenya and Malawi, and South Africa must top Botswana, Central African Republic and Ethiopia. The 10 group winners will be paired into five home-and-away ties with the five successful teams representing Africa at the first World Cup in South America since Argentina hosted and won the 1978 edition.