Impalas’ revenge? | A dream fixture for postcolonialists

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A supporter shows the colors after Angola’s 1–0 victory over Rwanda clinched a trip to Germany. (Riccardo Gangale | AP)

Luanda, Angola | At some moment on 11 June 2006, an overexercised sports commentator will allude to the colonial history of Angola and perhaps suggest that recompense against opponents Portugal lurks in the minds of the Palancas Negras (“black-faced impalas”). As in all sport, teams, once defeated, look toward the next match-up with the victorious foe for a “measure of revenge.” Applying the same dubious principle, however, to games between one-time colonies and their one-time occupiers seems a trifle ridiculous. More than a trifle.

With victory in a qualifier in Kigali, Rwanda, on 8 October, Angola clinched its first appearance in the World Cup finals, joining fellow African newcomers Togo, Ivory Coast and Ghana. President José Eduardo dos Santos termed the victory “sweaty, deserved and fair” and, with the stakes now raised for Angolan football, has shown a head of state’s capacity for meddling. On 22 December, the Angola Press Agency reported that dos Santos appeared preoccupied with team weakness a month in advance of the 2006 African Cup of Nations (“President Concerned about Soccer Team’s Attack Sector“). Following a 40-minute presidential audience, Negras coach Luí­s Oliveira Gonçalves said “[t]he President is satisfied with the two simultaneous qualifications, but a bit sceptical about the attack sector that in his point of view scores few goals.” In his attendance at training sessions, dos Santos, 63, worked with forwards and goalkeepers. He has been president for all but four years of Angola’s 30-year independence, having not stood for election since 1992.

Angola’s success set off the inevitable celebrations and reassertions of national identity. “Almost every conversation about Angola’s future includes soccer,” writes the Nigeria Daily Sun (“World Cup Epidemic Hits Africa,” 26 December). The paper quotes Cornelio Caley, professor of sociology and history at Agostinho Neto University in Luanda: “If we can do it in football, we can do it in other areas of life. It makes me very optimistic about the future.”

Angola’s encounter with the Portuguese started in 1483 with the arrival at the mouth of the Congo River of explorer Diogo Cão. The territory, 14 times the size of Portugal itself, had been named for an early king, N’gola, and would supply an estimated three million slaves to plantations in Brazil. The surfeit of white colonialists, as in Portuguese colonies Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and São Tomé and Prí­ncipe, and the unprincipled extraction of natural and human resources would leave David Lamb (The Africans, 1987) to write that Portugal had

milked its two largest African colonies . . . as dry as a dead cow and bequeathed them nothing but the guarantee of economic disaster. (172)

A 14-year war of liberation, in which dos Santos fought, led at its conclusion in 1975 to the withdrawal of 90 percent of the white settlers in a five-month period (David Birmingham, Portugal and Africa [Hampshire, England: Palgrave, 1999], 147). This left the transport, currency, police, revenue and health systems bereft. Twenty-seven years of civil war, the stationing of some 20,000 troops from Cuba and a failed experiment with Marxism followed.

President Agostinho Neto was imprisoned four times by the Portuguese; he was also a published poet and physician. Angolans called him “Our Immortal Guide.”

Given this capsule history, that Angola has recorded the sporting milestone of World Cup qualification—in addition to eight continental basketball championships—becomes all the more miraculous. Birmingham in his book mentions that football, failing a renouncing of colonial holdings by Portugal premier António de Oliveira Salazar, became the “white alternative to politics.” For resistance among blacks, the sport served as cover for organizing. The leader of a rival wing of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Nito Alves, became president of the Sambizanga football team, building prestige and using supporters’ groups as agents of political will. From this base he was able to challenge the country’s first president, Agostinho Neto, setting into motion an attempted coup d’état in Luanda on 27 May 1977.

So how did the Palancas Negras do it? With players from the diaspora, playing mainly in the first and second divisions in Portugal, and from a 14-team semi-professional domestic league, how did the side congeal to better Nigeria in qualification group 4? For one, domestic football has never ceased despite 40-some years of war. Before 1975, when there was no national team, José íguas of Lobito, Angola, captained Benfica to consecutive European Cups in 1961 and 1962; he gained 25 caps for Portugal. “The domestic championship has been played every single year,” says José Cunha, a commentator on Luanda station LAC 95.5 FM (Paul Doyle,How Angola Shocked the World—and Themselves,” The Guardian, 11 October).

Even when the roads were destroyed and the communications networks were ruined, we never missed a season. I think that proves how attached our people are to football and what a big factor it is in national unity.

Credit also goes to Gonçalves, who mined expatriate talent in the Portuguese leagues and who brings continuity, having worked with Benfica striker Pedro Mantorras and team captain Fabrice “Akwa” Maieko since their days in youth football.

For those who enjoy scanning the fine print in the Financial Times, bidding opportunities abound for offshore oil concessions.

One also surmises that the Federação Angolana de Futebol has material resources, provided the enthusiasm of dos Santos and the nation’s oil wealth. John Donnelly, in a series of Boston Globe articles on the oil industry in Africa, describes the capital, Luanda, founded by the Portuguese in 1575, as a “boomtown reminiscent of scenes from the television show ‘Dallas’ ” (“Oil Wealth Helping Few of Angola’s Poor,” 11 December). The state-operated oil concern, Sonangol, which sounds already like a football organization, recently started another round of bidding for deep-water oil fields. Sonangol does not publish its accounts, and it is said to have the authority of a shadow government (John Reed,A Peace Dividend Is Elusive as Angola Embraces ‘Petro-Diamond Capitalism,’ ” Financial Times, 14 November). London-based Global Witness claims that $8.4 billion of public money, beginning in a four-year window starting in 1997, was lost through such murky dealings.

Palancas Negras already have been awarded a $1.5 million bonus for their exploits. Commentator Cunha says the team “will make a dignified presence” in World Cup Group D, which also features Mexico and Iran. “They will not go there and put 11 men in the box to try to get three 0–0 draws.”

Update: In a field report from Luanda, Times (London) writer Owen Slot compares Angola’s situation to that of Liberia, which, with George Weah, nearly qualified for the 2002 World Cup (“Uniting behind One Goal in War’s Bitter Aftermath,” 17 January 2006). When Liberia fell short, the crowds turned on the side; Weah required an armed guard. “[W]hen the game ends, life hasn’t changed,” says sociologist Gary Armstrong, editor of Football in Africa: Conflict, Conciliation, Community. “In Liberia’s case, the game ended and you still had no job, no running water and a life expectancy that is wretchedly low.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. Pasha says:

    Nice recap! I’m writing a blog about Angola’s team if anyone is interested. Looking forward to the Palancas Negras representing in the World Cup.

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