Mozambique coach Mart Nooij evokes the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as his team prepare for the rigours of the final leg of regional qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The Mambas might not be considered among the realistic contenders, but Nooij insists they be allowed to dream of progression to the finals.
He has taken his side to the last group stage of the African Zone preliminaries, and is in the mood to dream big. "Once upon a time in the USA there was Martin Luther King Jr., who said 'I have a dream'. We all have a right to dream," Nooij told FIFA.com. "So we are dreaming of the World Cup but we are also realistic. So the conclusion is we will fight in each match for three points and then, at the end, calculate what we have."
Mozambique are the only one of South Africa's immediate neighbours still left with a chance of lining up at the 2010 finals, and there is great excitement in the country as their Group B opener approaches. They meet no less than mighty Nigeria in Maputo on 29 March.
"Everyone in Mozambique is excited. Even me, the coach! If we had four stadiums in Maputo they would all be sold out! The Mozambicans are crazy for football," said the 53-year-old from the northern part of the Netherlands.
It is indeed a tough group for the Mambas, who have been drawn with top contenders Nigeria and Tunisia, both of whom are former FIFA World Cup finalists. Mozambique have never gone close in the past but still harbour outside hopes of making it to competition.
"It's a tough group. If you want to go to the top, it's tough. Everything is tough," Nooij explained. "If you can't handle these tough situations, then don't aim for the top."
Nooij, unheralded in his own country, coached Burkina Faso's youth team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2003, and also worked in another west African country, Mali. The Mozambique post is his biggest yet, and he has overcome some early setbacks to turn his side into contenders.
The coach is quietly confident about his team's ability, even if the last Mozambican to enjoy any international recognition was Eusebio, playing for Portugal and with the height of his prominence four decades ago.
"We have a nice team. There is nothing wrong with the team of Mozambique," he said. "The philosophy and the vision is OK, the players are executing my ideas as if they were their own. We are just going to go for it and we'll see what happens."
Nooij insists his players have no psychological block about being on the same pitch with some of African football's top stars, having recently lined up against Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire. "We have played already at the Machava Stadium against Senegal and the Ivorians," he said.
"I've told the players simply: 'If you don't want to play in this stadium filled up with 60,000 Mozambicans, just go and play with the ladies'. But on the pitch, with 60,000 behind us, we need lions. We need Mozambican lions. Up to now, they have never disappointed me."
Nooij's squad is an eclectic mix of talent, from up-and-coming midfielder Domingues and Egypt-based defender Dario Khan to veteran striker Tico-Tico, who is their record appearant and scorer. At 35, Tico-Tico is the final stages of a glorious career. He currently plays in the South African second division and will be challenged to pick up the pace for the match against the Nigeria, despite scoring 27 goals in 78 caps for his country.
But Nooij believes in loyalty to his players and consistency in his team selection. "Tico-Tico is the captain of the team, so he is a big part of it. You know, I am calling up 25 players for the match against Nigeria. They are coming from Mozambican clubs and from clubs outside the country. I just have to check that they are fit. If everyone is fit, then I'll not change anything," said the coach.
"I don't like a pigeon house with players fluttering in and out. We are talking about the national team and national pride. That is a serious matter, so we have to be serious. If clubs put my players on the bench, I don't care. I will still call them up."