Angola out but not down
Angola's first-round elimination from the 2006 FIFA World Cup, while not altogether unexpected, was down to a combination of inexperience and tactical limitations. For all of that, Oliveira Goncalves' men put up a valiant effort and should be pleased with their overall performance.
The most obvious reason the Palancas Negras failed to survive the group stage was the team's relative inexperience at this level. Germany 2006 was their first taste of FIFA World Cup action and, as the coaching staff declared ahead of the tournament, their team were here "to gain experience". Furthermore, with the exception of Pedro Mantorras, who plays his club football at Benfica in Portugal, none of the Angolan players has had any real exposure to the pressures of top-flight matches.
The strategy chosen by Goncalves was decidedly defensive. Despite using 4-4-2 throughout their qualifying campaign, the only African-born coach at Germany 2006 opted for a more cautious 4-5-1 when the finals got underway. And while the strategy proved partially successful in that the team conceded only two goals (against Portugal and Iran), the flip side was they only managed one themselves, and that came towards the end of their final game.
Despite their group-stage exit, the squad will be given a heroes' welcome when they arrive back in the capital Luanda. Before the tournament began, many Angolan fans feared they would be forced to use both hands to tot up the number of goals conceded. In reality the team was in with a chance of qualification for the second round until the very end and, perhaps even more importantly, performed exceptionally well in a tense opening encounter with Portugal. Two draws may seem like a meagre return, but it goes beyond the pre-tournament predictions of most observers.
A solid team
Overall the system of play chosen by Goncalves proved to be a good tactical fit for the resources he had available. The next aim therefore must be to achieve greater balance by encouraging a more attacking approach. The relatively young average age of the squad means that the core of the side can be kept in place to attempt another assault in four years time. Perhaps the biggest problem for the Palancas Negras is the lack of international superstars, in the mould of say, Côte d'Ivoire's Didier Drogba. The Angolan Football Federation has made great strides in promoting youth development, but there is nothing they can do about a shortage of God-given talent.
Further proof of the team's impact at this FIFA World Cup comes in the form of the Budweiser Man of the Match awards given to Angolan players in two of their three matches. Goalkeeper Joao Ricardo gave an excellent demonstration of his craft, particularly against Mexico, and the lightning-quick Ze Kalanga showed what wing play is all about against Iran. The performances of midfield duo Andre and Figueiredo, as well as those of the central defenders Jamba and Kali proved that the backbone of the side is already functioning well.
Reasons for optimism
It seems that Goncalves will be kept on as coach, thus ensuring some much-needed continuity and giving the Palancas Negras a genuine shot at qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The first tournament to be held on African soil would be a perfect time to show that the accomplishment of Germany 2006 was no lucky break, and that football has become more than a symbol of hope for a country attempting to leave behind its turbulent past.