September looks certain to be a tense month for Angola. They slipped up badly along the road to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ in June, losing 3-1 in Uganda and drawing 0-0 with the same opponents in Luanda. Those results poured cold water on hopes that had been steadily rising until then, but the Palancas Negras know the next round of qualifiers remain firmly within their reach.
Guided by Portuguese coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves, the players will reprise their campaign with an added motivation too - that of wanting to continue their ascent up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The Angolans climbed three places to 58th this month and will hope to keep going in the same direction with good results in their last two qualifiers, in Benin on 7 September and against Niger on 10 October.
Although Angola cannot yet lay claim to a place among the continental elite, their performances in the last few years have at least forced people to broaden their take on the country. As striker Fabrice Akwa explained in 2006: "We've proved that Angola has more than just petrol, war and poverty."
That has been the case ever since the qualification campaign for Germany 2006, with Angola's eventual and first-ever appearance in a FIFA World Cup proving a genuine success. Their sole defeat was a narrow 1-0 reverse at the hands of Portugal, while they held supposedly superior opponents in Mexico and Iran, drawing 0-0 and 1-1 respectively.
Angola proved these displays were no fluke when they booked themselves a second consecutive ticket to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Once in Ghana for the tournament earlier this year, it took eventual winners Egypt to send them home with a 2-1 victory at the quarter-final stage, while many will long recall their stunning 3-1 win over Senegal in the group stage. Now just one spot away from the African top ten on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and 13 places away from their highest-ever position, the Palancas Negras desperately want to step up another level by qualifying for the next FIFA World Cup and showing they deserve long-term recognition as one of the continent's leading lights.
Having taken over the reins in 2003, Luis Oliveira Goncalves is one of the main reasons behind Angola's recent success, fully earning his nickname of 'The Professor'. As the years have gone by, he has built a disciplined and tactically astute outfit from limited resources, with the promising Manucho perhaps the only player to stand out from the rest in terms of natural ability.
Surely the finest example of how far Angola have come was their slender loss to Portugal during Germany 2006, impressive both in terms of the score-line and the performance. Used to suffering heavy setbacks against their former colonial masters, the Africans conceded just once and managed to string together a number of menacing attacks in the second half.
That game, among others, has Goncalves counting on also qualifying for the next edition of the FIFA World Cup, which will be the first to be held in Africa. "We're absolutely intent on taking part in this huge party and confirming the good impression we left in Germany," he said.
New chapter to write
Favourites before Group 3 began, Angola no longer enjoy the advantage of being an unknown quantity and have struggled to find their rhythm of late. They lie two points behind leaders Benin after two wins, one draw and one defeat from four matches, and the meeting between the two rivals on 7 September will be crucial to Angola.
Victory would keep their dream of travelling to South Africa well and truly alive, whereas a draw or a loss would risk bringing all the hard work over the last few years into question - at least until the next Africa Cup of Nations gets underway, that is. The 2010 edition will be held on Angolan soil, handing the locals another excellent chance to show what they can do.