COMMENT By Ed Dove Follow on Twitter
We’ve been treated to numerous ‘Fairytale’ stories in African football over recent years. However, while previous miracle men Zambia, Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde have all failed or are struggling to book their places at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, Guinea-Bissau have become the continent’s latest overachievers.
The tiny West African nation—with a population of just 1.7 million—have never before stepped foot inside the top 100 in Fifa’s world rankings, yet they’ve confirmed their place at the continental showpiece after topping Group E.
The Lusophone minnows set the tone of their qualifying campaign with a 0-0 draw at Zambia—protagonists of their very own fairytale in 2012—a year ago, and overcame a thumping home defeat by the Republic of Congo to take six points from lacklustre Kenya and give themselves a fighting chance of making the finals.
With Congo and Zambia taking points from each other, Guinea-Bissau’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Chipolopolo took them to the brink of the Afcon, before Kenya’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the Red Devils on Sunday afternoon confirmed the Djurtus’ place at the continental high table in 2017.
Immense credit must go to coach and ex-Portugal international Paulo Torres—a player with Sporting Lisbon and a coach with Anderlecht—for transforming the fortunes of a team that were excluded from Afcon qualification as recently as 2008 due to financial concerns.
Following a similar model to Cape Verde—who sought to explore the full breadth and depth of their diaspora—Guinea-Bissau’s squad is plucked heavily from the Portuguese leagues, with players such as Cicero and Mamadu Cande having been born in the Metropole, and numerous others having come through the academies of some of the Primeira League’s top clubs.
Captain Bocundji Ca may be a familiar face to Ligue 1 viewers, having swapped Stade de Reims for Paris FC earlier in the year following stints with Nancy and Nantes, while Toni Silva was once on the books of Liverpool, Benfica and Chelsea, and has since featured for the likes of Barnsley, Dagenham & Redbridge, CSKA Sofia and Sanliurfaspor.
Guinea-Bissau’s historic weekend secured their place alongside hosts Gabon and Morocco, who booked their spot as Group F winners back in March.
Heavyweight quartet Algeria, Egypt, Senegal and Cameroon secured their spots at the continental showpiece after topping their respective groups, with the Pharaohs ending their considerable absence from Afcon competitions with a victory over Tanzania.
Having sealed Nigeria’s elimination after taking four points from two games against the troubled Super Eagles, Egypt have shown that they are finally on track to retake their mantle as one of the continent’s genuine giants, having missed the last three tournaments after previously winning three in a row.
If Genesis 41 is anything to go by, the Pharaohs could well be set for another spell of considerable continental dominance.
On Sunday, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Mali joined Paulo Torres’ miracle men in the hat for the Afcon group stage draw.
The Black Stars represent one of the most stable national sides in Africa, and despite a somewhat sluggish qualifying campaign—they found Mozambique and Rwanda more trouble than expected to overcome—Avram Grant’s side have to be taken seriously.
The Israeli coach has largely cultivated the squad that took the Black Stars to the final of the 2015 event, with Thomas Partey of Atletico Madrid—who made his debut against Mauritius on Sunday—almost the only new face who could realistically challenge for a starting spot in Gabon.
Having come so close so often in recent years, there is a genuine reason for optimism that this could be the Black Stars’ year, regardless of the grumblings of fans and journalists.
Zimbabwe have been missing from the last five Afcons, but they secured qualification with a 3-0 victory against Malawi this weekend and demonstrated how—in Knowledge Musona, Cuthbert Malajila and Khama Billiat—they might just have the firepower to escape the group stage.
Willard Katsande of Kaizer Chiefs is a tenacious skipper and gives Kalisto Pasuwa’s Warriors a streak of steel that could serve them well in Gabon.
Four groups are still to be settled, including Group A, where Liberia and Tunisia—both on 10 points—meet in North Africa in early September in a straight shootout for an automatic spot, while Democratic Republic of Congo need just to avoid defeat against second-placed Central African Republic when they meet in three months’ time to book their spot at the Afcon.
In Group D, Burkina Faso—who host Botswana in September—need just to equal Uganda’s result at home against the Comoros, and a draw would be enough for reigning champions the Cote d’Ivoire to advance from Group I at the expense of Sierra Leone.
Tunisia, Uganda and the Central African republic currently lead the ranking of the runners-up on 10 points each, while South Africa’s non-participation was confirmed this weekend despite Bafana Bafana thumping the Gambia 4-0 in one of the best performances of Shakes Mashaba’s time in charge.