At the age of 54, South Africa coach Owen da Gama is right to consider himself a well-travelled person. Thanks to football and his keen eye for goal, he built up an impressive collection of passport stamps in his playing days. “I’ve already been around the world. I played for Beerschot in Belgium, for Figueres in Spain, when they were in the first division, and I played in Ireland too, for Derry City, where I won the player of the year award. I didn’t play in the top leagues but I made a habit of scoring my goals,” he told FIFA.com in the bowels of the Maracana, following the draw for the group phase of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
That trip was just the latest of many made by an intrepid South African who inherited his pioneering spirit from his forebears. One of them just happens to be the Portuguese navigator and explorer with whom he shares his surname and who, in 1497, became the first European to lead a fleet of ships from the old continent to India.
In doing so Vasco da Gama rounded the southernmost tip of Africa to found the Cape Route, which transformed the way the world did trade at the time. It was a landmark achievement that would ultimately lead to the discovery of the country that is now preparing to host the Olympic Games, a discovery that came about in 1500, when Pedro Alvares Cabral sought to follow Da Gama’s route round Africa to India, but sailed off course and stumbled instead upon Brazil.
“Yes, Da Gama, as you know, is a very important name. You only have to look at my nose to see that it’s the same as Vasco’s,” he said with a smile. “One of Vasco’s sons, Emanuel, stayed in Mozambique, and that’s our branch of the family, 14 generations ago. We’ve got the family tree, signed registry books and diaries.”
Owen said he speaks “a little Portuguese”, which he learned from his father, though it is unlikely he will be putting his language skills to the test that much when he arrives with his side in Brazil, where his opening assignment of Rio 2016 will be a meeting with the host nation in Brasilia on 4 August.
“We know it’s going to be tough,” said Da Gama. “They’ve got some great players, but the challenge is also going to be an opportunity for us. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Brazil, and the longer we can hold them off the better. It’s going to be a fantastic experience and I think we can acquit ourselves well.
Road to Rio
The South Africans can take heart from their performance at last year’s CAF U-23 Africa Cup of Nations, where they edged out hosts Senegal in the third place play-off, a victory that secured them the third and final place at Rio 2016. Reflecting on that win, Da Gama said: “It might bring us luck. Who knows? I always prefer to start off against the big teams, though, and I think Brazil and Nigeria are the best two sides. After that, the only way is up.”
That opening match in Brasilia will not be South Africa’s first meeting with A Seleção this year. That came back on 27 March in Maceio, Brazil, where the visitors went down 3-1 in an Olympic warm-up match. “Anything’s possible in football. The fact that we have only five of our guys playing in Europe, with the rest of the team based at home, perhaps works in our favour, as we can spend more time together and play together. It could be an advantage, though you still have to respect Brazil all the same.”
As soon as the opening match is out of the way, the South Africa coach is hoping the home fans will get behind his team, and not just because of his ties to the Portuguese-speaking world. Aside from that warm-up match in Maceio and the Olympic draw, the wayfaring Da Gama has visited Brazil on four other occasions, with Sao Paulo, where he has friends, being his main port of call.
“The people of Brazil have always been good to South Africa. We have a very good relationship,” he explained. “We had (Carlos Alberto) Parreira in charge of our national team, which strengthened that sense of appreciation. We always get a very warm welcome there, and there’s no country in the world that has a better feeling for sport than Brazil.”
So when his hosts discover that he is a descendent of Vasco da Gama, can he also expect the support of the Rio de Janeiro club of the same name, one of the giants of Brazilian football? “Who knows?” he replied. “We also have a second division team in South Africa called Vasco da Gama. Everyone thinks it’s my team,” he added, failing to suppress another laugh.
Spying yet more new horizons, Da Gama is hoping he can live up to the family name on his latest venture into the unknown.