Angola team: Hosts hope for home advantage

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According to the pre-tournament publicity, Angola has already won just by hosting the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN).

But for the majority of Angolans, regardless of how much has been spent on building new stadiums and roads, the most important test is not if the pitches are ready in time, but how their team performs on those pitches.

The Angolan team is known as the Palancas Negras or Black Antelopes, named after a critically endangered species of sable with distinctive long curved horns found only in Angola.

Until now the Angolan football team’s successes have been nearly as rare as sightings of their namesake, with just four qualifications for the CAN (making the quarter-finals once in Ghana in 2008) and one for the World Cup in 2006 (not passing the group stages).

The big hope, of course, is that by hosting the competition at home with tens of thousand of supporters behind them, all that will change and Angola will prove they can win tournaments as well as stage them.

As head of Group A, playing in Luanda’s 50,000-seater 11th November Stadium – the largest of the four built for CAN – the Palancas face Mali, Malawi and Algeria.

The order they are playing in should favour them as they take on tricky opponents Mali (to whom they lost 0-4 in a friendly back in February 2009) straight after the tournament’s opening ceremony where the stadium will be packed to the rafters with red black and yellow flags and plenty of Angolan spirit.

If they can beat Mali, they should be able to beat Malawi, the weakest team in the group, and with two wins under their belt, they will have already qualified and their game against Algeria, arguably one of the tournament’s strongest teams who recently put Egypt out of the 2010 World Cup, becomes academic.

The quarter-finals look more complicated as the top two of Group A play against the top two from Group B, this year’s so-called “group of death” with Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Burkina Faso.

Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, among the tournament favourites, are likely contenders to win their group, giving Angola a tough quarter-final which, unless they manage to beat Algeria, will be played to a smaller crowd of 20,000 in Cabinda.

However, Ricardo Quaresma, a Portuguese journalist writing for A Bola sports newspaper which has a special Angolan edition, believes anything is possible.

“I think it is possible for them to get quarter-finals,” he says. “It’s not an easy group, Algeria just qualified for the World Cup and are, for me, one of the candidates for a final victory and Mali is also a good team.

“But Angola are at home, they’ll have millions of people on their side, they are the organising country ... All these factors together can take them through the first stage and then, if the Palancas reach the quarter-finals, I believe everything is possible.”

This sense of possibility has been the message of Angola’s coach, Manuel José, since he took over the reins of the team in June last year.

Portuguese José was plucked from an impressive trophy run at Egyptian club giants Al-Ahly and hailed as the answer to Angola’s prayers following a string of miserable results including non-qualification for the World Cup, and the dismissal of their coach Mabi de Almeida.

Speaking to media after his appointment, José said: “Our goal is going to be to qualify for the quarter-finals. All teams want to win of course and when the Angolan Football Federation signed me, their idea was to win the CAN, but we cannot put things so high, we must go step by step.

“Angola is going into this competition as outsiders, but we will work hard and see what can happen.”

At 63 José is almost three times the age of some of his players, but this is part of his appeal and he is renowned for his tough discipline and demand of respect – referring to himself in media interviews as “O Mais Velho” (literally “The most old” but in Portuguese a term used to infer wisdom and command respect).

The Palancas’ star striker Manucho Gonçalves, one of the few Angolans to play in the English Premiership with spells at Manchester United and Hull City last year, is among those to have fallen foul of Jose’s tough discipline.

Turning up late to team training in the Algarve in October without an apology did not impress José and saw the young striker, who now plays for Real Valladolid of Spain, dropped from the squad for crucial CAN warm-up games against Ghana and Republic of Congo in November.

Player and coach have since kissed and made up – not without intervention from Angola’s sports minister Gonçalves Muandumba who called on Manucho to apologise.

But José more than made his point and according to Quaresma, this tough disciplinary front has given the team an important boost.

“I think discipline is one of the biggest challenges for Angolan players, more than tactics or how they play,” the Angolan specialist says.

“They have had to change their mentality, take their work more seriously and really concentrate. That’s what all the players have told me has changed the most since José took over, the discipline and the concentration.”

Apart from Manucho, known as much for his row with the coach as his time in the Premiership, there are few household names playing for the Palancas. Most of the team are based either in Portugal or Angola, whose leagues get little publicity in the rest of Africa or beyond.

Many see Pedro Mantorras – whom José has said “could have been better than Didier Drogba” – not the flashy Manucho, as the team’s best weapon for the CAN.

Playing up front for Benfica in Portugal, Mantorras has previously turned down advances from Inter Milan and Barcelona but has since been dogged by injury and is yet to play a full 90 minutes for his national team.

Other strong Angolan players (most of whom are known by nicknames not their surnames) include forward Flavio Amado – “Flavio” – and midfielder Felisberto Amaral – “Gilberto” – who played together under José at Al-Ahly and have experience of playing to large crowds in important matches.

David Magalhaes – “David” – who plays for Petro de Luanda is a fans’ favourite and delivers well in the national Girabola league, while Carlos Alonso – “Kali” – (formerly of AC Arles-Avignon) is measured in defence and is expected to captain the side on January 10.

Back in June last year, José said: “By December I can guarantee that the Angolan national team will be mentally, physically, technically, tactically and psychologically ready.”

It is now up to the players to prove that.

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