The relationship between Mart Nooij and Mozambique appeared to be over following the CAF Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. The Dutch coach had guided the country to the continental finals for the first time in 12 years but following first-phase elimination in Angola, his contract was up. The Mozambican Football Federation (FMF) elected against a renewal.
Nooij’s three years in the hot-seat had nevertheless convinced Mambas fans that he was the man to take them forward and following public pressure, he was offered a new four-year deal, which he signed last month to end a five-month hiatus from the reins. The 56-year-old’s immediate mission is to mastermind Mozambique’s qualification for the Cup of Nations 2012. It is one that will begin a week on Friday with the visit of Libya in the curtain-raiser to Group C, which also includes Zambia and minnows Comoros.
The south-east African side have not had as golden an era since the mid-1990s, three decades on from when Mozambique-born greats Mario Coluna and Eusebio were starring for colonial masters Portugal. Nooij is candid in admitting this might not be the strongest generation the nation has boasted, but he believes his current cast's determination will reap rewards.
“We have proven that we play with a fighting spirit,” he told FIFA.com. “It is not only about nice football - the best players are those who can accept they have a job to do and play to win. This is what my players are like. I’m also a fighter.”
Over the last 18 months, Mozambique have made their home ground in Maputo somewhat of a fortress. They held Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria there in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, and their 1-0 win over Tunisia last November ended their opponents’ hopes of reaching South Africa 2010. “We’ve had good form in our home games, but now we have to learn to get points away from Mozambique,” Nooij said.
The Dutchman warned that success will not happen overnight. “I’m here to rebuild the team in four years,” he explained, fresh from a training session with the country’s U-23 side. “We are taking it step-by-step. It’s a slow process, not a job that cannot be done in one week.
“First I have to overhaul the national side. There are nice players coming through but when you lose a player like Tico-Tico, who has been our captain for decades, then you lose a bit of quality and you have to look to compensate for it. The only way to do it is step-by-step, but while seeking to keep the team at the same high level.”
Reaching the next Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon is the obvious target for Nooij. “We have more or less three evenly-balanced sides in our group and one weaker team. First of all the results against the Comoros will be vital for all of us, and could make a difference at the end.”
Zambia have proven somewhat of a nemesis to Mozambique over the years, but Nooij is refusing to read into that. “I’ve never had a block about beating Zambia or any other team for the matter,” he affirmed. “Neither has my team. We didn’t have it when we played against the Ivorians, Tunisia and Nigeria, so why should we be worried about Zambia? That is only in the head, not on the field. I think that if the coach doesn’t believe any of that, then the players don’t obsess about it either.
“Basically, we have to play six good matches if we are to qualify. A single good match will not do. In the last competition, we qualified in the last game - it was so close. I’ve said it since I first came here in 2007: no panic, no hurry. We will work hard and we will get there.”
Next year’s All-Africa Games – a qualifier for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 – will take place in Maputo, where Nooij will be responsible for leading the hosts’ U-23s. “The All Africa Games will be a good impulse for Mozambican football, particularly for the young players who will be able to aim for something really high,” he said. “We will open our new stadium in December with a crowd of some 60,000, and that will help the players to find the right spirit. We have exciting times ahead.”