Zambia’s triumph at the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations was the cathartic end of a near 20-year journey following the tragic air crash in 1993 that took most of their squad. The emotion shown by the team and Zambian football association president Kalusha Bwalya, the only surviving member of that team of '93, proved the win transcended football.

These sorts of fairytales may be a rarity, but every now and again a team’s success can be the vehicle to unite fans, or even an entire country, in an outpouring of emotion. looks back across some of the feats that have captured the hearts of fans and meant more than simply prestige or silverware.

The Africa Cup of Nations has been the setting for other such achievements. Libya’s qualification for this year’s tournament against the backdrop of civil war, being forced to play their ‘home’ games on neutral ground, was an incredible feat. It gave the country's people a lift during a time of tremendous hardship and a chance to focus on something beyond the conflict surrounding them.

Dampening divisions 
But 16 years prior to that, a nation marked the end of decades of division with a triumph at their first appearance in the competition. Hosts South Africa had just come off the back of an inspiring victory at the Rugby World Cup a year earlier, retold in the film Invictus, but lifting the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 arguably united them even more. Nelson Mandela told the squad during the tournament: “What you are doing is part of the reconstruction of South Africa.”

In what is often seen by South Africans as ‘the people’s sport’, becoming continental champions made household names of a largely black Bafana Bafana side, immortalising the likes of Lucas Radebe, Doctor Khumalo and Mark Williams. Having been banned from the competition until 1994 because of apartheid, seeing black players triumphantly representing their country was a sign for many natives that a new South Africa was blossoming on the global stage. Radebe’s reaction to winning the tournament expressed the value of this togetherness, saying: “When you scream from excitement and everyone is screaming with you, you are one.”

This rebirth of a nation through victory had been experienced just over 40 years earlier, when West Germany won the 1954 FIFA World Cup™ in the wake of the Second World War. Not only did they defy the odds by beating Hungary's Magical Magyars in the final, which went on to be known as the 'Miracle of Bern', their success also saw the West German nation once again feel accepted by the global community. This was punctuated by the first public performance of the national anthem since the war’s end.

When you scream from excitement and everyone is screaming with you, you are one.

Lucas Radebe on winning the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations

The feat is credited as one of the fundamental events in the foundation of a new West Germany. Horst Eckel, who played right-half in the final, said the impact on the nation’s self esteem was instant. “People didn't say that the national team players were world champions, they said: 'We are world champions'. The feeling of togetherness of the Germans was suddenly there again.”

Four years later, Germany was the setting as another team began a journey from tragedy to triumph. On 6 February 1958, the course of Manchester United football club changed forever as their much heralded ‘Busby Babes’, in very similar fashion to Zambia 35 years later, were largely wiped out in an air crash. A club, city and nation mourned the loss of talented youngsters, including the likes of Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan.

Manager Matt Busby rebuilt the side around Bobby Charlton, who, with the likes of George Best and Nobby Stiles, took on Benfica at Wembley in the European Cup final ten years later. A 4-1 win saw them claim their first European title and that decade of fight and reinvention is still seen today as the pivotal period in United’s trophy-laden history.

Spirits lifted
Japan entered last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany with catastrophe still fresh in the memory, following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the east of the country in March. The team fought their way to the final, defeating favourites Germany en route, to lift the cup with a penalty shoot-out win over USA. So incredible was this conclusion that Japanese newspaper Sports Nippon described it as being “like a movie”.

It is seen as one the country’s greatest ever sporting achievements and was taken as a chance by media and citizens alike to celebrate and forget the ongoing crisis. Even having lost the final, USA’s Abby Wambach could appreciate the result's wider significance, telling “I think that Japan have suffered so much and needed to win more than we did. I’d like to think that this win can bring a little hope and joy to the Japanese people.”

Iraq achieved similar triumph amid turmoil at home in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. Their team had become a shining beacon of unity, bringing together players of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish backgrounds together, and their journey to the pinnacle of Asian football was full of the romance of a victory for the underdog.

Against the background of bloodshed home, by beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Jakarta the Iraqi team showed the world another identity, rather than that of a war-torn country. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki said at the time: “Our Lions of The Two Rivers have taught the world an important lesson. Through determination and tenacity they snatched victory.”

Sometimes, though, a title can count for more when it comes after decades of inferiority, and even more so if it looks like you may be denied your moment of long-awaited joy. Racing Club, the perennial bridesmaids to local rivals Independiente and the giants of nearby Buenos Aires, experienced this amid chaos in Argentina back in 2001.

The country was in disorder, a state of emergency had been called, and riots in the capital resulted in deaths on the streets. With Racing needing just a point from their final game to end a 35-year wait for a league title, it looked like the unrest would deny them their chance. However, it was decided the final pair of pivotal games would played to see if River Plate could pip them to the post, taking place just a week after bloody protests and the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua.

River defeated Rosario Central, meaning Racing had to at least draw against Velez Sarsfield. With the score level at 1-1 as the final whistle blew, the Racing fans erupted in ecstasy, taking to the pitch overcome with delight after 35 years of frustration. It was the result that every neutral wanted, and went down as a moment of joy in a troubled time for the nation.