Angola brace for World Cup

The Angolans are preparing for their maiden appearance at the World Cup finals in Germany in a few weeks time and the Cosafa Castle Cup mini-league showcase in Lesotho last weekend could not have come at a better time. The Negras Palancas showed their superiority in the mini-league showdown by winning the four-team event with a convincing show that booked their place in the semi-finals of Africa’s best regional football tournament. Angola beat hosts Lesotho 3-1 in the final on Sunday. Twenty-four hours earlier, the Angolans had crushed Mauritius 5-1 to book their place in the final. Lesotho had beaten Mozambique in the other semi-final. That comprehensive victory over Mauritius must have boosted the Angolan spirits and Ze Kalanga scored twice and Mateus struck the other in the final match against Lesotho. The home team, knowing that an upset was possible on their own soil, could not have asked for a worse start than the dismissal of their skipper Motlatsi Shale after just 15 minutes. In an ugly incident that tainted the image of the game, the Lesotho captain punched Angolan defender Jamba in an off-the-ball incident and was duly sent off. With 10 men for 75 minutes, the home fans knew that their team was up against it, especially given the emphatic way that the Angolans had destroyed Mauritius in the previous game on Saturday. But to their credit little Lesotho battled hard and appeared to be carrying the battle into the second half, with the scores level, when the Angolans struck. Mateus, playing only his second match for his country, fired home the opener with a shot that went in off the underside of the crossbar. Then Ze Kalanga added a second two minutes later when he tapped home a flick for inspirational skipper Fabrice “Akwa” Maieco. Ze Kalanga then struck a third with a stunning volley from the edge of the box and Angola were clearly home and dry. The brilliant Ze Kalanga has enjoyed a good year and was named the Rookie of the Year by his country at their national sports awards last month. He is expected to be part of the Negras Oalancas team for the World Cup finals in Germany where they will play Portugal, Mexico and Iran. The Negras Palancas have been the toast of their country since they booked their place at the World Cup finals by winning Group D of the African qualifiers, which included heavyweights Nigeria. Angola and Nigeria completed their campaign on the same number of points ‘ 21 ‘ after they both lost one game during the qualifiers. But the Negras Palancas booked their place in Germany on the back of a better head-to-head average against the Nigerians following their victory over the Super Eagles in Luanda and their draw in Abuja. Akwa was clearly the inspiration behind the Angolans march to the World Cup finals and fittingly scored the goal that took his nation to Germany. Angola needed to win their final match against Rwanda in Kigali to go through and with 81 minutes gone and the score goalless, it was proving to be a nervy finale for the brave Negras Palancas. In contrast Nigeria were sailing to a comfortable 5-1 destruction of Zimbabwe in Abuja. Then it happened. A long ball was flighted into the area as Angola piled on the pressure in search for that golden goal and Akwa rose to direct it home and win the match and the ticket to Germany. Akwa was subsequently named the country’s Sportsperson of the Year at a ceremony in Luanda last month for his leadership qualities in taking his country to the Promised Land. The 28-year-old striker is searching for a club after his contract with a Qatari team was cancelled. Akwa believes his team now believes in themselves and their strong bond, which helped them qualify ahead of Nigeria, will help them make a big impression in Germany. “I didn’t expect us to qualify,” he told ahead of the World Cup finals. I never imagined this dream would become a reality. I know people will say ‘huh, it’s only Angola’ and will expect to win, but if we play how we’ve played until now, with an all-for-one, positive attitude, then anything can happen. “We had no big names but we worked very hard as a team. I believe this is the secret of this side now, we get together, sit down and discuss our problems. “We’ll have to train hard and do better and show people we didn’t qualify just through luck. We have to show we have quality and deserve to be in such a championship. This is the first time we are in the finals and we want to show off our football. We also want to show there is more to Angola than just war and oil.” For a lot of people around the world, Angola has been nothing but a war story ‘ a nation ravaged for decades by a civil war that derailed progress and killed thousands of people. Jonas Savimbi, a strongman backed by the West, waged a relentless onslaught against his own people in a cruel battle for power as he tried and failed to topple the government of Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Savimbi was killed by Government forces in February 2002 which all but marked the end of the bloody conflict. After being tormented by a civil war that raged for 27 years and whose scars are still being felt, the people of Angola have seen their spirits being lifted by their team’s World Cup fairy-tale success story. Everyone has taken football to their hearts and Akwa and his team are the new national heroes. “Even people who understand nothing about football come up to me, want to touch me, to be with me. It’s incredible,” Akwa told Doing well in Germany will further lift the status of the Angolan football status. For coach Luis Oliviera Gonclaves, the mini-league tournament in Lesotho was part of his preparations for the Germany showcase. That is why he took a very strong team and he will certainly he pleased by its strong show. On Thursday, Angola’s Minister of Youth and Sports, Jos’ Marcos Barrica, met with members of his country’s national assembly to explain the national team’s preparations ahead of the World Cup showcase. Barrica is the president of the Coordination Committee that was created by President dos Santos to supervise the Negras Palancas’ preparations for the Germany tournament. Barrica furnished the national assembly with specific details of how the team will be ready to plunge into the World Cup furnace when it finally gets underway on June 9. Angola will play former world champions Argentina in the Italian city of Napoli in a friendly international on May 30 ahead of their debut tie in Germany. The match, originally scheduled for May 31, has been brought forward by a day because the organisers don’t want it to clash with the other international friendly between Italy and Switzerland. The Angolans are ranked as rank outsiders at the World Cup finals but are in a group where they can shock one or two of their opponents. Their clash against Portugal will be an emotional affair given that the Portuguese were the former colonial masters in Angola. Most of the Angolan players play their football in Portugal and give their interviews to the world media in Portuguese. Angola originally wanted to hold a training camp in Portugal but they changed that plan after they were drawn to meet the Portuguese. Akwa played in Portugal for Benfica before moving to Qatar while Pedro Mantorras still plays for the Lisbon giants. A World Cup finals showdown between Angola and Portugal in Germany just goes to show the strides that African football has taken over the years to reach the top table of world football. In the past ‘ especially during the ’50s and ’60s ‘ football on the continent was in such tatters that the colonial masters used to take the best players and use them for their own campaign. Portugal famously unveiled a strong central striker called Eusebio, tapped from Mozambique, at the ’66 World Cup finals and he ended the tournament as the top goalscorer. Times have changed now and Akwa will be playing for Angola and not Portugal in Germany next month and the world can barely wait to watch that contest.

May 2006
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