LUSAKA: African stars have received varied rewards for heroic acts on the football field.
Popular items include plots of land, houses and cash, but when Christopher Katongo scored a hat-trick to defeat South Africa and propel Zambia into the 2008 African Nations Cup his prize was out of the ordinary.
While the three-goal hero and his team-mates celebrated the Houdini act that rescued a sometimes disastrous qualifying campaign, the commander of the Zambia army promoted Katongo from corporal to sergeant.
Although no longer an active soldier as he pursues a professional football career in Denmark, the army says he will be welcomed back into uniform should he return to the military when he hangs up his boots.
But as a 25-year-old footballer, parade squares and weapons are the last things on the mind of Katongo as he plots the downfall of Group C favourites Cameroon and Egypt in Ghana with Sudan the other first round rivals.
A spate of injuries has sidelined Collins Mbesuma, leaving the Zambia strike force blunt and much rests on the shoulders of Katongo as Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) bid to move beyond the first round for the first time in 12 years.
When Zambia last made an impression by finishing third at the 1996 Nations Cup in South Africa, Zambian Kalusha Bwalya finished leading scorer with five goals.
South Africa is a happy hunting ground for Zambian marksmen as Katongo made his mark at club level there with Jomo Cosmos after spells at Butondo Western Tigers, Kalulushi Modern Stars and army team Green Buffaloes.
He spent four years being coached by South Africa legend Jomo Sono, a star who would have become a household name around Africa had it not been for the apartheid system.
Katongo scored 15 times for Johannesburg-based Cosmos in the first half of the 2006-2007 league season before signing a four-year contract with Danish club Brondby.
And despite his absence from the 15-round second half of the South African championship, no other goal poacher climbed above the Zambian on the scorers ladder.
How Katongo must wish South Africa were in Group C as he thrives against them, scoring the lone goal when they clashed at the 2006 Nations Cup group stage to decide who finished last on the standings.
And then there was the hat-trick in Cape Town last September which took just 12 first-half minutes to execute and humiliated Brazil 1994 World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and his South Africa side.
Victory gave Zambia, who had lost to Bafana Bafana (The Boys) and been held by featherweights Chad at home, top spot in Group 11 and South Africa sneaked through as one of the best three runners-up.
Aside from his predatory instincts, Katongo is not afraid to swim against the public tide and refused to join in the clamour for the dismissal of caretaker coach Patrick Phiri when Zambia were down and almost out.
I insist that Phiri must finish what he started, said Katongo. AFP