A tiny island nation in the Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s Atlantic Ocean coast, Sao Tome and Principe is the definition of a minnow in world football. But despite a limited record in competition and a constant struggle with poverty and development, their national team have historically proven themselves to be capable of posting good results. This has been notably true since late last year when the side returned to the international scene after many years away.
This recent run of positive scores - a draw in Congo and an historic two-legged victory over Lesotho in CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying - has lifted the team to 168 in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their best-ever mark. Nicknamed the Falcons and Parrots, the team soared up from 196 the month before, with that 28-point differential also their all-time best.
Against the tide
Being ranked 45 in Africa may not seem like a significant achievement, but for a side that did not play an international match for eight years since November 2003, the direction upwards is unmistakeable. That momentum becomes even clearer given this week’s CAN qualifying win over Sierra Leone, which will not be included in the rankings until March.
A nation of only approximately 200,000 people, Sao Tome and Principe has a total area of just 1,000-square kilometres spread mostly across the two larger islands that give the country its name. It became independent from Portugal only in 1975, and around that time they founded an FA before joining FIFA a decade later. The Sao Tome and Principe national team first played out a qualification campaign ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. In that case, and again four years later, they went out after two matches.
In the Germany 2006 preliminaries, they fell to Libya 1-0 at home before crashing 8-0 in the away leg, a result that sent the team into exile. They did not play again until November last year, when the long road to Brazil began with a qualifying tie against Congo. With a team made up entirely of domestic-based players, none of whom had played an international before, the Santomense were overwhelmed by the occasion, falling behind by three goals in the first half-hour en route to a 5-0 home defeat. It was the largest margin on the matchday, and the hosts also saw Kilson Neto de Ceita sent off late in the match.
Historic run begins
However, just four days later, coach Gustavo Clemente’s team showed the talent in their roster and the resilience in their hearts as they went ahead in Pointe Noire through teenage midfielder Orgando dos Santos, who blasted a long-range shot into the corner of the net. And though they drew 1-1 to go out of FIFA World Cup qualifying, things have largely been rolling on since.
In the preliminary round for the 2013 Cup of Nations campaign, they claimed their first win in almost a dozen years with a 1-0 triumph at home against Lesotho. An early penalty by another teenager, Jair Nunez, proved the difference despite the fact that the Crocodiles dominated the rest of the proceedings. Against all the odds, they then managed a scoreless draw in the away leg in Maseru despite Lesotho again having the majority of chances. The Falcons and Parrots had never before successfully navigated a two-legged tie, and they also had never gone three matches unbeaten in their history. Upon their return home, they were greeted by an adoring public and hailed by the nation’s president.
But they were not done yet, and yesterday they added to their Cinderella story with a 2-1 defeat of Sierra Leone in the next round of CAN qualifying. Despite going behind in the 55th minute, Nunes responded with another penalty before the crowd at the National Stadium in Sao Tome exploded in joy as the home team scored a winner in the dying minutes. Although they will again be underdogs in the away leg on 15 June, they will be buoyed by the best run of results in their history.
This fresh optimism fits in well with the overall development of the sport in the country. “We have put in place a four-year project, the goal of which is to markedly increase the number of footballers in our nation. While we may be small, there is a real potential here as far as players are concerned,” said new FA President Idalecio Pachire earlier this month. He talked then about having a four-year plan to improve the national team, but it seems the green and red side are ahead of schedule.