Dignity is not a concept with which modern football often concerns itself, but when the Angola midfielder Figueiredo spoke of his side’s defeat by Portugal on Sunday as “dignified”, he clearly saw it as something of a triumph. Angola, after all, are the second-lowest-ranked side of an African entry many feared would be, to quote the Senegal captain Ferdinand Coly, “an embarrassment” at the World Cup.
Admittedly the five African teams have picked up just one point from their opening games – and that secured only by Radhi Jaidi’s last-minute equaliser for Tunisia against Saudi Arabia – but there has been no humiliation.
Ivory Coast were expected to be the best African representative, and so it proved, as only two bad misses from Bonaventure Kalou prevented them taking something from their match against Argentina.
Ghana were let down by a lack of composure in the final third, but unsettled a very good Italy with the power of their midfield.
Even Togo, the worst of the five according to the Fifa rankings, led against South Korea, and will wonder what might have been had Jean-Paul Abalo not been sent off early in the second half.
But it was Angola’s performance against Portugal, finalists at the 2004 European Championship, that was most heartening. Perhaps Portugal’s showboating after taking a fourth-minute lead let the Africans off the hook but, given a lifeline, they performed creditably, and would have stolen an equaliser had it not been for Ricardo’s fingertip save from Andre a minute before half-time.
“I don’t think Portugal were ever completely comfortable,” said the forward Pedro Mantorras, and given the gulf in tradition and quality between the sides, the Angolans could not have asked for more than that.
The only shadow over their performance was the suspicion that grew increasingly as the game went on that both teams were happy with a 1-0 scoreline. Portugal’s relationship with Angola is complex. Five years ago a friendly between the sides was abandoned amid rioting after Angola had had four men sent off, but this time the mood had changed, with many of the younger generation of Angolan players speaking of Portugal as a second home.
Mantorras, who plays in Lisbon for Benfica, had even said he would not celebrate scoring against “the country that took me in when I needed it”. Portugal got their three points, Angola got their dignity and both can now refocus for the rest of the tournament.
For Angola that means a game against Mexico today, an encounter for which they have been preparing with the help of psychologist Laurindo Vieira, a lecturer at the Catholic University in Luanda.
“The psychologist talks to them about brains and nerves and whatnot, and he tries to make them more confident,” said the team’s press spokesman Arlindo Macedo. “I’m not really sure what they do in these lectures but the players come out laughing about who is using the right side of their brain and who is not.”
If nothing else, that speaks of a healthy team spirit, and that may be Angola’s strongest attribute. Many of this squad, after all, grew up together under the present coach, Luis Oliveira Goncalves, when he was in charge of the Under-20 side.
“He helped me a lot,” said Mantorras. “Especially in 2001 when we won the African Under-20 championship. I was just a kid, but he taught me all about life as a footballer.”
Whether because of Vieira’s work or not, that togetherness is translating into self-belief, and there is even talk of what might happen if Angola could hold Mexico to a draw; a win against Iran in their final game might then see them take an improbable place in the knockout phase.
There is of course the danger of over-reaching and ignominy, but the second stage of a minnow’s development is when dignity is no longer enough, and Angola seem to have reached it.
“We don’t want another moral victory,” said Figueiredo. “We want a real victory and three points.”