When the draw for the group phase of the qualifying competition for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2017 was made, very few people gave Guinea-Bissau a chance of being competitive. After all, the Djurtus were by far the lowest ranked team in their group. That was in April last year, and Guinea-Bissau were ranked 134th in the world and 41st in Africa. The other three countries in their group, Congo (53rd and 13th), Zambia (60th and 17th) and Kenya (118th and 37th), were ranked much higher.
Fast forward just over a year and not only has Guinea-Bissau climbed to 27th on the continent and their highest-ever ranking of 102nd in the world, but with two matchdays to go, they find themselves in the astonishing position of leading Group E. The northwest African side are on seven points, while Congo and Zambia each have six and Kenya are on one, and coach Paulo Torres' team are suddenly dreaming of qualifying for their first-ever AFCON finals, which will be held in Gabon early next year.
Between the March FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and the latest one, the team climbed 45 places – mainly due to back-to-back victories in the AFCON qualifiers against Kenya. In the first match, which was played in the Estadio 24 de Setembro, in the capital Bissau, Belgium-based winger Idrissa Camara scored the only goal of the game early on.
In the return leg, which was played just a few days later, it was Cicero, who got the all-important goal in another 1-0 victory. The striker, who plays his club football for Paços de Ferreira in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, found the back of the net with nine minutes to go.
Tough road to go
There are, of course, a number of reasons why the Djurtus have suddenly gotten more competitive. Captain Bocundji Ca, who spent several seasons playing in the top flight in France and currently plays for Paris FC in Ligue 2, believes football officials in the country have pushed hard to expand the talent pool. "They understand that the national team is important. We have had quality players for quite a long time, but when the officials gave more support, it helped us convince some players to join the national team."
The 29-year-old says that sweeping Kenya was a major step toward qualifying for Gabon. “But it is only one step. It is going to be difficult. Zambia are a very good team, and they won the AFCON four years ago. But we are going to be serious in our preparation as usual, and we are going to do the maximum.
"If we qualify for the Cup of Nations, it would be great for our football. It would help us attract highly-rated dual-nationality players such as [Sporting Lisbon and Portuguese youth international] Carlos Mane..."
Midfielder Bruno Gomis, who has been playing in Romania, identifies another factor that has helped the team achieve success. He believes coach Paulo Torres, who was a member of the so-called 'Golden Generation' of Portuguese footballers - that included players like Luis Figo and Rui Costa and won the FIFA U-20 World Cup at home in 1991 - has been instrumental in the success.
“He has done a good job in getting everyone's commitment to the plan. And it worked well against Kenya. I think we have a strong team spirit, and we really act as a very united team, which is a great strength," Gomis explains about the coach who took over in 2014.
Like his captain, he is aware that it will not be an easy task to qualify. "It will be difficult because the last two games will be against two good teams [Zambia and Congo]. But qualifying is possible. We need at least a win from the two games, but losing one could compromise our chances. Qualification would be a first for Guinea-Bissau, so we will do our best to make it to Gabon!"