Angola's golden goals

The World Cup adds further momentum to Angola's long struggle to leave its past behind. The country's hard-won independence was followed by a 27-year conflict, between the communist-backed MPLA and the Unita rebel force. More than 1.5million people were killed before the fighting finally ended in 2002. There are more landmines in Angola than in any other country, one for every child. Two million people - one in seven of the population - are threatened by starvation.


Angola's golden goals

The World Cup adds further momentum to Angola's long struggle to leave its past behind. The country's hard-won independence was followed by a 27-year conflict, between the communist-backed MPLA and the Unita rebel force. More than 1.5million people were killed before the fighting finally ended in 2002. There are more landmines in Angola than in any other country, one for every child. Two million people - one in seven of the population - are threatened by starvation.

One of the world's poorest nations is raring to go in Germany. Jamie Jackson reports on how a country once riven by civil war has progressed against the odds

A blistering afternoon at the Amahouro Stadium in Kigali last October and deep into the second half Angola seem powerless to break the deadlock against Rwanda in the final game of their World Cup qualifying campaign. Angola need to match Nigeria's victory against Zimbabwe, a 5-1 success that finished slightly earlier, to ensure an improbable berth in the finals for the first time. Coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves makes three substitutions. The frustration continues until 10 minutes from time, when one of the substitutes, Ze Kalanga, crosses and Fabrice Akwa rises to head powerfully beyond Rwanda's keeper. Akwa, the Angola captain, bursts into tears. The Palancanegras - the antelopes - have achieved the impossible. The most remarkable qualification not just for this World Cup but, arguably, for any.

A campaign that had nearly ended at the outset, when Angola lost 3-1 away to Chad in a preliminary match in October 2003, ended in triumph. And it is not just the football story that is so remarkable.

Two months after the victory in Rwanda, at the draw in Leipzig, came a reward almost as implausible as their World Cup debut - a dream opening game today in Cologne against Portugal, the country's colonial rulers for 500 years. It is what has happened since the Portuguese announced, 31 years ago, that they would be leaving that makes Angola's World Cup journey extraordinary.

Throughout Angola, the parties that followed the Rwanda game were more memorable than the independence day celebrations of 11 November 1975, which were foreshadowed by the opening shots of a long and bitter civil war.'We had a lot of dreams when we were young, but they all disappeared as we grew up during the war,' says Thomas Teixeira, a government worker who acts as driver, interpreter and look-out man during Observer Sport's visit to Angola.'But everyone forgot about their troubles when the team qualified.'

The World Cup adds further momentum to Angola's long struggle to leave its past behind. The country's hard-won independence was followed by a 27-year conflict, between the communist-backed MPLA, which won initial control of much of the country and established an internationally recognised government, and the Unita rebel force, aided by support from apartheid South Africa and later the United States. More than 1.5million people were killed before the fighting finally ended in 2002.

There are more landmines in Angola than in any other country, one for every child. Two million people - one in seven of the population - are threatened by starvation. The average income is the equivalent of barely £4.50 a week. Nearly two-thirds of the population are aged under 16, many of them orphaned. One in three die before they are five and average life expectancy is 45. Angola ranks 166th of 177 nations on the United Nations human poverty index.

The country is blessed, though, with oil and mineral reserves that make it potentially the richest in Africa. The current oil boom - Angola provides 4 per cent of America's imported oil - shows no signs of trickling down to the poor; instead it has made a small group of powerful families unimaginably wealthy.

The diamond mines bring in further billions, but again the money is held by only a few. A list compiled in 2003 by the Semanario Angolense newspaper named President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos as Angola's richest person. Football, though, is different: that belongs to everyone.

Most of the 23 players Goncalves has selected for Germany 2006 have been directly affected by the war. Benfica striker Pedro Mantorras, who was at Barcelona during Jose Mourinho's time at Camp Nou, lost his father when he was three months old, his mother when he was 16.

'I became head of the family very young, living with my sisters and brothers,'he says.'Now the world has started to see Angola with different eyes where before there was only news of war and misery.' Mantorras, along with most of his team-mates, learned to play football in the dirt.'I was born playing soccer. I played in the street with my friends every day, barefoot, with a cloth ball. Then one day a man saw me and took me to school. I was 11.' Even playing football in the street could be dangerous: Teixeira tells of how his brother Neco died when a scratch caused by a piece of rusted metal during a game infected him with tetanus.

Mantorras's tale indicates how important luck is to becoming a footballer in Angola. Delgado, the Petro de Luanda left-back who may well mark Cristiano Ronaldo today, reinforces the point.'It's hard to become a very good player here. Sometimes it is not about talent, but good fortune. If you are playing among more than 50 kids it's difficult for the coach to find you. There should be more [football] schools so that people can start learning.'

The conflict prevented any possibility of structured youth football. Landmines and the threat of ambush made travelling by road extremely dangerous, so teams were forced to fly to Angolan league matches. There was a further threat to players.'We would go training and wouldn't know if the people from the army would catch us and force us to go fighting,' says skipper Akwa.'It was obligatory for 18-year-olds. But I was lucky. I never had a problem.'

Away from the smoothly paved boulevards and offices that house the interests of oil and diamond businesses, the Angolan capital, Luanda, is a bewildering blur of heat, dirt, dogs, wild pigs, traffic jams, the sick and the limbless, tented homes, shanty settlements, street vendors who peddle toilet seats, shower heads and rat repellent, and the never-ending crush of people, most of whom are just trying to survive. Yet despite the dire conditions for most of its inhabitants Luanda is said to be the most expensive city in the world after Tokyo. The billions yielded by Angola's natural reserves have fulled inflationary prices: hotel prices begin at £65 a night for basic rooms; a can of Coca-Cola can cost £3; it is £35 to eat in a restaurant. And it is difficult to move around. Taxis do not exist. Those with money hire private cars and chauffeurs, and are wary of walking alone in daylight because of the threat of street robberies at gunpoint. Driving after 10 at night is considered foolish.

Most Angolans, though, are friendly and rightly proud of a country that has a strong history of culture and sport. They like to boast that capoeira, the Brazilian martial art and dance form, originated in their country. Semba, a rhythmical dance music, is considered the mother of samba. Handball and basketball are popular sports, with Angola among the best in Africa.

Football, though, is the national passion. And although it costs 200 kwanza (15p) to watch a match, enough for six loaves of bread, visits to watch Luanda's major teams - Interclube, ASA, Primeiro Agosto and Petro - offer respectable crowd numbers and raucous, colourful fans who enjoy a good sing-song. Away from the clubs, barefoot children are everywhere, kicking a ball among sewage, rubbish heaps and the huge puddles of water that flood the dirt lanes and shacks that have mushroomed since Luanda began soaking up the majority of the four million people displaced from their home provinces by the war. In 15 years the population has risen from 850,000 to 4.5 million.

The national team's policy of searching outside the country for players of Angolan extraction, particularly in Portugal, reverses the usual trend of a former colonial overlord cherry-picking the best talent from its former territories. The search overseas, which started in 1995, was a factor in Angola's debut the following year in the African Nations Cup finals and continues to be important. First-choice goalkeeper Joao Ricardo and defender Rui Marques grew up in Portugal. More crucial than any player to their current success, though, is Goncalves, the coach known as the Mourinho of Africa, who rose through the ranks of Angola's various national age-group teams.

A big moon-faced man with an easy smile and a liking for gold jewellery, Goncalves (pictured below) began his working life as a painter and carpenter aged 13, before joining a civil-engineering company four years later. His love for football moved him to secretly switch to a physical education course at college and defy his bosses -'I was already in my final year before they realised' - who had insisted he study engineering. Talking in his small, air-conditioned office at the Angola Football Federation, which uses some ramshackle rooms in a hotel adjacent to the large but rather dilapidated national stadium.

'I formed a football team in the company I used to work for when I was 17, he says, while switching off two of his three mobile phones.'People didn't believe in my project. I was everything - the driver, president, coach. Then people started to believe and we managed in the end to take the club into the second division of the national league.'

Goncalves' determination and success gained him a job with the Angola Football Federation.'I worked with national sides from 1992 until I reached the top. I was African champion with the under-20s and took that team to Argentina for the 2001 World Youth Cup. So I knew what existed in the Angola soccer federation.

'We could overcome all the difficulties we had. If Angola played away, the planes of the national airline would wait at the airport even it was for three days. I would bring four chefs to take care of the players' diet. And the federation gave them a good reward. This all helped us to qualify.'

Goncalves got his big chance following the sacking of coach Ismael Kurtz after the defeat in Chad. His first competitive senior match was the second leg, which Angola won 2-0 to go through on away goals. Along with Rwanda, Angola's qualifying group featured Gabon, Zimbabwe, Algeria, and Nigeria, the hot favourites. A surprise 1-0 victory over Nigeria in Luanda in June 2004 was followed by a draw in the away game.

Goncalves believes the fundamental factor was changing the mindset of his squad.'We didn't have very good players in Europe, like Nigeria and Algeria, so we had to become well organised. Our psychology was not good when I assumed the leadership: they had lost many matches. I can tell you for example that before we played the opening game of qualification, against Algeria, I defined the team to play in a very offensive way. But the players didn't want to. They said, "No, it's Algeria." It was a big result when we drew because then they trusted me. And when we beat Nigeria here it increased even more.'

Sport, and football in particular, has always played an important role in Angolan society, even during the war. During morning training at Petro, Amaral Alexio, a former international striker and now the club's director of football, explains:'Despite a war that lasted more than 30 years, the Angolan government always created conditions for soccer and other sporting activities to continue.

'Before 1992 [when there were elections] under the ruling socialist party, sport was considered an obligation. So the government made a very strong investment, training people in areas including and related to sports science. We sent people on scholarships to Cuba, the USSR, Germany, and in some cases to Brazil, to study.' The back-up goalkeeper in Goncalves' squad spent a while in Cuba, and his assistant coach studied for years in East Germany.

Alexio emphasises the importance of these relations with the old communist world.'These people came back after eight or 10 years of study, and they are the ones now developing our sports. War never totally stopped this. We could do some sports because the fighting was more in the jungle.'

Now 41, Alexio identifies how football has changed since he first played as a 14-year-old in 1979, the year when Dos Santos began his long reign, and when the Angola Football Federation was formed.'There is much more investment. The structure of football has also changed. There is now a professional department that cares about the national teams, which didn't exist when I was a player.'

Since 1996, Angola have qualified twice more for the Nations Cup, but had to wait until this year for their first victory, 3-2 against Togo.'In South Africa [1996] we arrived late and we were still discussing bonuses and help with costs,' recalls Akwaat the training ground of ASA, where the scorer of a record 31 goals in 68 international appearances is keeping fit while between clubs.

'In Burkina Faso in 1998 it was even worse and there were really unpleasant situations. There were players who wanted second helpings [of food] and directors who refused because they didn't have the money to pay for it.'

And in the league? 'No team could drive because of the landmines, everyone used to fly,' says Alexio, who played 41 times for Angola.'Now we can drive, the costs are cheaper.' Was he ever scared?' After a time we became accustomed to it.'

Goncalves' team have a chance, in Germany, to help Angolan football make a huge leap forward. Petro and former Zimbabwe coach Jan Brouwer believes investment in youth is vital for the future.

'In Africa the money is not generally available to improve the infrastructure. But the finance is here. The government sometimes strikes a deal with an oil company when they want to do business. They say, "OK. One thing you have to do is sponsor a football club." That's a very nice approach.'

The authorities also invest more directly. The Angolan army subsidises Primeiro. Interclube are the police team. ASA and Petro are, respectively, sponsored by state-owned air and oil companies. Brouwer confirms the government's serious intent.'They want to have the African Nations Cup here in 2010 so they are preparing.'

It appears, from watching Petro, ASA, Primeiro and Interclube train and play, that the standard and pace of the 14-team Angolan first division (there is also a 10-team second division) is quite high, certainly Football League level. Bernardo, a midfielder with Petro who was with Weymouth for six months, offers his assessment:'It is different over there. In England we played tactical. Here, players and fans like to dribble, beat a man, take a long shot, things like that.'

There is a noticeable disparity between the standard of training and match play. Brouwer explains:'Our training pitch is bare, so players receive the ball at pace. But at the Estadio Cidadela (where ASA, Petro and Primeiro play), the players' boots disappear, the grass is too long. It will be a problem for the national team in Germany.'

Goncalves has proved his ability to spot potential. He was criticised initially for including Ze Kalanga in the squad, though everyone now agrees the 22-year-old midfielder is a potential match-winner who will be a key performer in Cologne tonight.

The coach tells a tale regarding one 17-year-old he saw training twice at Portuguese club Estrela da Amadora when on one of his many research missions in Europe.'His brother Roberto Assis said the player, Ronaldo, wanted just $2,500 to stay, but they let him go. I knew that was a mistake. Although he did not then have the physical build, I could tell he had technique.' Ronaldo changed his name to Ronaldinho and went to Paris St-Germain.'That club lost a lot of money,' Goncalves laughs.

It is the kind of mistake Goncalves seems unlikely to make. He keeps an extensive collection of little black books containing his notes from constant trips around the globe. He frequently visits Europe, and recently spent time at Benfica with Ronald Koeman.

His knowledge and tactical acumen has provided Angola with a dream World Cup bow, and a massive boost to the nation's self esteem. The players are aware of the power they have to help in their country's rebuilding process. Many are involved with grassroots football schemes that include the Viva a Vida Aids awareness project organised by Unicef. Even in the poorest, most desperate areas of Angola football has a resonance. At one of the many crèches set up by Save the Children in the slum area of Hojy-ya-Henda outside Luanda, four-year-old Mesare Eduardo is asked what he wishes for when older.'To study and draw,' he says, before swinging his foot to score a phantom free-kick and announcing he cannot wait to see Angola play in the World Cup.

In a group that also features Mexico and Iran, Angola, the poorest country to play in the World Cup finals since Haiti in 1974, are expected to finish bottom.'But in football you never know,' Awka says.'I always dreamed about playing in the World Cup when I was a boy. And I'm happy today that I can say my dream will come true.

'Now there is peace we all want to show that there can be positive things in our country. Angola has good weather and is beautiful. It is different now, we are starting to build something. I believe all Angolan people are happy.'

This evening crowds will flock to Lac Square in downtown Luanda to watch the match on a specially erected open-air screen. It will be party time all over Angola, Teixeira says. And if the palancanegras manage a goal?

'That would be unbelievable,' he grins.'Just perfect.'

Von: 11.06.2006,

<<< zurück zu: News