Mozambique coach Mart Nooij has become something of a cult figure in the country’s capital Maputo for his quirky sayings and accented Portuguese.
"Whoever is afraid has to stay with Mama at home," is one of his favourite expressions, and this he says is the fearless philosophy he will insist his players take into Wednesday’s decisive CAF Africa Cup of Nations match against Nigeria.
Mozambique, who pushed Nigeria hard in the FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers last year, must beat the Super Eagles in Lubango to have a chance of grabbing one of the quarter-final berths, while a draw would be enough to allow Nigeria to advance to the knockout stage from Group C.
To say that Nigeria are under pressure to advance would be an understatement, especially six months before they travel to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Two linked sides
Ironically, reports from the tournament in Angola have suggested that Nooij has been in discussions with the Nigerian FA about taking over the Super Eagles should current boss Shaibu Amodu face the sack after the CAN.
The interest in the Netherlands-born boss is not surprising given that the Mambas were one of the most pleasant surprises in African qualifying for South Africa 2010, and Nooij had largely been credited with the turnaround since he took over in 2007. Their growth in athleticism and self-belief, especially when playing at home, was in evidence in their performances against Nigeria.
"We drew with Nigeria in Maputo last year," Nooij told FIFA.com. "And they only scored in stoppage time when they beat us (1-0) in Abuja this past October, when our central defender Mano was injured behind the goal with a broken leg. Nigeria were very lucky against us. Perhaps it is ordained that the luck on Wednesday will now be on our side."
In order to progress in Angola, the Mambas must also overcome the fact they have never won before at a finals tournament. Mozambique are playing at the Nations Cup for a fourth time, but the first since the 1998 finals in Burkina Faso, where they lost all three matches with a negative-seven goal difference. To date they have drawn just two and lost nine of 11 finals appearances, adding even more pressure to the considerable challenge ahead of them.
But Nooij insists his unfancied side, devoid of any of the international names in the Nigeria side, are ready for the big match. "We have no fear. Did you see any fear in my team when we played against Egypt, which is one of the best in Africa? Why should you fear an opponent?
"If the coach is mentally strong, then the team is mentally strong also. After three years of collaboration together, I know these Mozambican guys will fight for every inch, but unfortunately here at the Nations Cup, we have made three individual errors in our two matches and this has not helped us at all,” said the coach.
Close, yet so far
Own goals in successive matches by Dario Khan have seen Mozambique forced to come from behind to draw 2-2 with Benin in their opening match in Benguela, where they also gave away a penalty. They were then beaten in a fairly narrow encounter 2-0 by two-time defending champions Egypt.
Asked if he felt satisfied with the considerable progress made by the Mambas over the last years, Nooij said: "It’s very dangerous to be satisfied, but if I’m looking backwards over the last years, we have helped the side get more organised and that’s made it difficult for our opponents to play against us. In our last game against Egypt, for example, there was hardly any space for them in the central midfield to make the room that they needed."
It is the same discipline Nooij insists he will have in place to thwart the Nigerians, and claim a major upset for the Mambas. The sides play Wednesday at 16.00 GMT at the same time Egypt take on Benin to decide the finishing order of Group C.