WHAT kind of atmosphere would you expect to find when Portugal take on Angola?
It’s only 31 years since the last Portuguese troops left the southern African country, bringing to an end 500 years of brutal colonial occupation. By the mid 19th century the Portuguese had sold up to four million Angolans into slavery, and it is estimated that half a million Angolans died in the war of liberation between 1961 and 1975.
When the Portuguese finally pulled out following the collapse of their Fascist government in 1974, they did so without any serious effort to transfer power to the Angolan liberation movements in an organised manner. These factions turned on each other, plunging the country into a savage civil war that lasted 27 years, killed half a million people and sent a third of the population running for their lives.
So Portugal’s colonial legacy to Angola was among the most toxic in all of Africa. Yet when I asked Gustavo Silva, director of the influential Radio Ecclesia in Luanda, whether he saw last night’s meeting as a grudge match, he laughed.
“Between Angola and Portugal there is a very positive and friendly relationship. The match against Portugal will be a match between friends. If Portugal wins, it won’t be that painful. There are many Angolans who support Portuguese teams like Benfica, like Sporting — I have Benfica in my blood.”
Guido de Jesus Siolengue, the 33-year old administrator of the Luanda Urban Poverty Programme, concurs: “During the last European Championship, Angolans were cheering for Portugal. It killed us when Greece beat them. If Angola is knocked out of the World Cup, most of us will probably switch to cheer for Portugal again. They are like a brother country to us.”
If the Angolans seem remarkably forgiving of the wrongs dealt them in the past, perhaps it’s because their eyes are fixed on the future. The economy is growing at 27%, and they have just secured a $2 billion interest-free loan from the Chinese government, most of which is being spent on infrastructure. Even more than Dublin, Luanda is a city of cranes. Guido’s office overlooks a new multi-storey tower that is shooting up with bamboo-like speed. “The Chinese build so fast,” he grins, “We are used to the Portuguese way of building.”
Silva says: “All you have heard about this country is war, illnesses, mutilations, assassinations, bombs and a market for weapons. The politicians cannot change this image at world level. The only diplomacy that works is football.”
Antonio Clara, of Luanda Antena Commercial and the newspaper Cruzeiro do Sul, is one of Angola’s most respected writers and broadcasters: “A few months ago, Angola was well known because of the war. Now there is also football. It is important that the world knows that we are going through a good moment now, that the country is being reconstructed. Football can help rebuild the self-esteem and pride of the Angolan people, which were destroyed by the war. Angolans can proudly say they are in the World Cup. Our country is happening. The future is coming.”
World Cup qualification is very difficult in Africa; out of 54 countries, only five can qualify, compared to 16 from 52 in Europe.
“The World Cup came like a gift to us,” says Guido. “We were a country that was always ashamed, but now we show that we can do things, that we can beat these Nigerians.”
Antonio Clara remembers the day when the 1-0 defeat of Rwanda confirmed Angola’s qualification: “It was an incredible day for every Angolan, after the match was over the people came onto the road, old people, young people, fat people, slim people, all the people partying up.”
Watching Angola play Mauritius and Lesotho in the Cosafa Castle Cup at the end of April, it was plain they have weaknesses of their own, notably their defenders’ tendency to give the ball away under any kind of pressure.
Coach Goncalves is doing his best to combat this with some high-end football philosophy. Antonio Clara explains: “Theoretically, Portugal, Iran and Mexico are much more productive than Angola. The main idea of Goncalves is strong defence and fast counter-attacks. Goncalves’ idea is “polyvalencia” — after the ideas of the Dynamo Kiev coach, Valeriy Lobanovski. Players who can respond to any situation. Defenders who can attack, attackers who can defend. If we can defend well and not open ourselves up, we can do well.”