Skipper savouring Guinea-Bissau's success story
If football was predictable, little Guinea-Bissau would not be busy making arrangements to participate in January's CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon. But after one of the unlikeliest qualifying successes in memory, the Djurtus will be at their first continental finals, qualifying from a tough group, remarkably with a match to spare.
A dramatic 90th-minute goal from Toni Silva won their penultimate Group E match 3-2 against 2012 African champions Zambia to open up an unassailable four-point lead at the top of the table, completing an amazing turnaround. After two matches, the team had just one point and was three points off the pace set by the Zambians and Congo.
Back-to-back 1-0 victories over Kenya followed, victories which the team's captain Bocundji Ca tells FIFA.com taught the side what they were capable of. "When we won against Kenya, everyone gave their maximum, they played to the full of their potential.”
As Zambia and Congo picked up just two points from two 1-1 draws with each other, the Djurtus suddenly found themselves in a position they had never been in before: With a real chance of making the AFCON finals. Ca, a midfielder who plays for Paris FC, says the team were not overwhelmed by the historic possibility.
“Even against Zambia, we went in with the same determination as we had against Kenya," Ca said. "We did not even consider drawing, we only wanted to win, by any means. It was the first opportunity in our history to qualify for AFCON, so we knew we could not miss it.”
And the small west African nation sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea near Gambia did not. Zezinho gave them the lead from the penalty spot, but Collins Mbesuma equalised for the 2012 champions shortly afterwards. Striker Frederic Mendy, who was playing his first game for Guinea-Bissau, restored the lead before the break, but again the Chipolopolo came back, this time through Christopher Katongo.
Urged on by a capacity crowd in the capital Bissau, it was Silva, another debutante, who found the winning goal in the last minute of the game. The joy of winning the match against Zambia turned to ecstasy just a day later, as Kenya did the side the huge favour of coming back against Congo to win 2-1, thus ensuring the Djurtus their historic achievement.
A winning combination Ca said the road to Gabon was not an easy one to travel: "We experienced very tough and complicated games. It was not easy, but we have a real spirit in this team, that is what makes us strong. Everyone defends, even strikers. We put a lot of pressure on the opposite teams.
"We attack and defend together. It might sound basic, but we did not do that a couple of years ago. This unwavering solidarity is our strongest point. And our home crowd is also a part of that."
Although the country is a former Portuguese colony, not everybody in the team speaks the language, but Ca does not see that as a hindrance. "Whether we speak Portuguese or Spanish, we are all on the same wave-length.”
The team is coached by Paulo Torres, who was a member of the so-called Golden Generation of Portuguese football and won the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship. "This coach is not one who speaks a lot, he is a quiet person, but he speaks a lot with his players individually, explaining to each of us what he wants," Ca said. "He is very professional. So we feel trust and support, and everyone is committed."
The captain believes another reason for the side's success is that they have support from high places. "We really feel a strong support of everyone in the whole country, including the president , who we met three times in May and June," Ca said. This interest in football is something quite new.
"Football was not a top priority in Guinea Bissau, but I think the government has become aware of how much it can help the country."
And success in Gabon will surely help the country's morale even further. Ca says the players are not scared of competing with Africa's best. "Playing at the AFCON will be a great pleasure. We have nothing to lose. Beating teams like Zambia showed us we should not feel inferior. If we can beat a team that won the Cup of Nations a couple of years ago, why should we worry about playing the tournament?"