Monday, June 12, 2006

Look back in Angola...

It can probably be safely said, we won’t see another team quite like Angola this summer.

For much of last night’s first half against Portugal, at the very least, they offered football as farce – haphazardly haring, scaring and simply bewildering their opponents.

This was Hackney Marshes stuff, somehow replacing the pristine pitch of Cologne.
Angola, making their World Cup debut, looked like they had no better clue than the rest of us as to how they managed to qualify at the expense of Nigeria or Cameroon.

They almost went behind direct from kick-off, the unreliable Pauleta steering wide when put through after just 12 seconds.

Minutes later, he atoned by tapping in from a cross by the supposedly past-it Luis Figo, who had been quickest to react to a loose ball and strongest in muscling past heavy-footed Jamba.

Angola were all over the place – attempts to work out what formation they were playing had to be abandoned, such was the apparent tactical indiscipline.

Eventually it was pointed out they appeared to be trying to man-mark the Portuguese midfield – interesting. If desperately brave.

Slice. Slalom. Clatter. No wonder mistakes began to creep into the play of the more eminent Portuguese opponents.

It must have been tricky – mind-bogglingly confusing, more like – to know how to counter such hapless tactics.

Luis Goncalves, the Angolan manager who had risen through the youth coaching ranks, looked to be struck dumb with shock on the touchline.

He gave the impression of a humble PE teacher suddenly, astonished, thrust into an arena well beyond his station and expectations – while also resembling the bewildered Guy Goma, perhaps.

Yet somehow, equally surprisingly, Angola started to find a little fluency, some neat passing movements, the odd crossfield sweep from veteran Figueiredo or burst of pace by Ze Kalanga.

Invariably, the effect would be suddenly spoiled by a wild, panicky scoop into the stands.

They even might have had an equaliser just before half-time, when rich playboy captain Akwa gave up on the forlorn idea of scoring the perfect bicycle kick.

Instead, he fended off Meira in an absorbing wrestle-dance out of the penalty area, eventually teeing up a fierce drive by Andre tipped aside by Ricardo.

That is, Portugal’s goalkeeper Ricardo, as opposed to Angola’s keeper, Joao Ricardo.
Angola had started the game with four players who earn their living in Portugal, and another four on the bench.

The former colonial power had, naturally, been the dominant party again in the first half, with the infuriating Ronaldo taking time off from extravagant dives to thunder a header against the crossbar and a right-foot shot to sting Joao Ricardo’s palms.

But he also took a verbal slapping from Tiago for too often abandoning his place on the wing, and was angrily substituted early in the second half. An infuriating player to play against, surely – and alongside.

Despite weighing in early – albeit later than he should have done – with a long-awaited major tournament goal, Pauleta was as ineffective as he was isolated.

Most of the time the Anthony Perkins lookalike simply stood insincerely grinning, like Norman Bates trying to assure suspicious visitors everything’s all right, yet deep-down knowing he’s in for a ticking-off – at the very least – later.

All the while, Scolari glowered in the dug-out.

Like the England-Paraguay game, this one petered out somewhat in the second half, as the hearty Angolan section of the stadium upped the tempo and the volume while the Portuguese jeered their own.

We were willing Angola to snatch a dramatic equaliser, but they could claim a kind of moral victory when the final whistle went and the score was just 1-0.

After all, their first match against Portugal had ended in a 6-0 drubbing.

The follow-up was abandoned after 70 minutes with Portugal cruising at 5-1, after Angola had ben reduced to seven men – four red cards and one injury.

Things could only get better, I suppose.

As his players hailed their fans, they strolled off down the tunnel, Goncalves sat alone in his dug-out.

Soaking up the atmosphere of his, and his country’s, first World Cup Finals experience?

Or simply stunned?

Their next two games should be fun.

Enjoy them while you can – Angola may not be back on the big stage for a while.

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