It says something about the state of the continent that Ivory Coast have been the only big team to hold their nerve so far at this African Cup of Nations. Egypt, Nigeria and Cameroon couldn’t even qualify for the finals; Senegal did (with some fanfare) but were so abject they may as well have not bothered going to Equatorial Guinea; Ghana, who before the tournament I predicted to be Ivory Coast’s final opponents, fluffed their lines against Zambia.
The Ivorians, though, have moved from the group stage to the final, scoring nine goals without conceding. Remarkable, given their previous defensive frailties, and their reputation as serial chokers.
That shows a degree of focus that has been absent in the past, a past where – with a succession of squads packed with some of the finest players in the world, let alone Africa – the Elephants seemed to think they could just turn up and the likes of Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure would blast them to glory.
A level of humility has been apparent this time – a strong team ethic, defensive nous, patience in the build-up. A level of humility borne of previous failure, spearheaded by a Drogba whose career is entering its twilight and who may well not be playing at the highest level next season.
A level of humility that means Manchester City defender Kolo Toure is not counting his chickens.
"(Zambia) are a really good team and it's going to be a very tough game," he told the BBC. "It means a lot to our country. The people there have been suffering so much.
"The only thing that brings them together is the national team and we try to do as well as we can."
There it is – an understanding that international football is not about being the guy who scores the winning goal, about the personal glory that triumph brings: it is about self-sacrifice for one’s team, one’s nation, one’s people, financial reward not even a consideration to those already made rich men by their clubs.
Zambia also have a point to prove – but for different reasons entirely.
Since the nation formerly known as Northern Rhodesia declared independence from the British Empire in 1964, Zambia’s football team has been in South Africa’s shadow (despite the Bafana Bafana being overrated, but that’s for another day).
For their relatively small size as a nation, they have an impressive history: twice beaten finalists, the first time in 1974 and the second 20 years later – and that one came only months after their entire squad was wiped out by an air disaster.
Zambia’s Olympic team also famously beat Italy 4-0 at the 1988 Seoul Games, although much of that team died in the 1993 crash (apart from hat-trick hero Kalusha Bwala, who was not on the flight and spearheaded their revival).
The 1993 crash took place not long after the team's flight took off from Libreville - and the poignancy of reaching the final, held in the same city, is lost on nobody. This year's team have already been to the coast to pay tribute to the generation of players who went before them.
But they hadn’t even come into consideration in pre-tournament predictions – I for one had them in the list of teams ‘making up the numbers’, with the chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals (as they did last time out) but not expected to make an impact beyond the last four.And it is proving everyone wrong that has inspired Zambia and their French coach Herve Renard, who was at the helm in 2010 and returned just before these finals.
"We have been under the radar, away from the pressure and maybe not taken seriously by many," the 43-year-old, whose return catalysed their recent revival, said.
"When I go on the internet, I don't see anything about our team. It's because they don't know our team in this tournament. Zambia did not rate in any of the predictions."
Historically they have been nearly-men, and highly undervalued ones to boot, but Renard has clearly used this outsider tag to inspire his team. It also helps that the team is settled, and has qualified for 10 of the last 11 African Cups: they know what is required at this level, and they know each other well.
Win or lose, they are already winners of sorts: Ivory Coast were expected to win this tournament, and are hotly tipped to triumph this weekend.
But if Zambia continue this run – and if Renard stays – don’t discount them at next year's tournament, or as surprise qualifiers for the Brazil World Cup in 2014.