Back in July, a footballer from Guinea-Bissau settled a major tournament. This Saturday 11 players from the small west African country will open one and if it is a stretch to imagine one of their number going on to emulate the feats of Éder, who won Euro 2016 in Portugal’s colours, then perhaps they have already achieved something of comparable merit.
Guinea-Bissau will begin this year’s Africa Cup of Nations against the host country, Gabon, in Libreville and it is a curtain-raiser few could claim to have seen coming. Seven years ago an impoverished state was in football’s wilderness, unable to reliably support a national team and in the midst of an exile during which nearly three years passed without it playing an international game; on 4 June last year, amid delirious scenes in Bissau, an injury-time goal from the former Liverpool winger Toni Silva defeated Zambia and a seemingly impossible mission had become reality.
“It was a complete surprise, because nobody really knew anything about our team,” the former Guinea-Bissau captain Bruno Fernandes says. “I think only those of us on the inside could feel something like this was about to happen – if not now, then in the very near future. We had all the quality playing-wise, but were lacking the right infrastructure and commitment from those taking us forward.”
This Cup of Nations comes too late for Fernandes, who retired in 2015 after an itinerant career that finished in Wales with Cefn Druids. He now works as a fitness instructor in Liverpool but confers regularly with the national team coach, his close friend Baciro Candé, about playing matters.
It was a stroke of fortune that led to the locally born Candé returning to the post he had occupied for most of the 2000s; his predecessor, Paulo Torres, was banned for their final four qualifiers after aggression towards the referee during their goalless draw in Zambia, and required replacing if Guinea-Bissau were to be properly managed on the road to Gabon. They subsequently won three games in a row.
“I always had the belief inside me that Baciro would be the one to take us to a big competition,” Fernandes says. “He knows how to talk and connect with the players, and as a local coach he can reach them in a different way. He knows the country’s football inside out and it was a big plus that he could come in and use all his experience.”
Candé has not been the only factor in their upturn. While Éder’s goal in Paris could be seen as the defining moment for a steady flow of players from Guinea‑Bissau to its former coloniser, Portugal, there have been concerted attempts to reverse the process in a similar manner to that which brought Cape Verde two appearances at the Cup of Nations.
All of the major Portuguese clubs have an academy presence or wide scouting network in Guinea-Bissau; while the majority of Candé’s squad were born domestically, half play in Portugal and a number had been capped at age-group levels by the European country. Silva, who now plays in Greece for Levadiakos, was an under-17 and under-18 international for Portugal; the goal against Zambia came on his debut for Guinea-Bissau. The forward Abel Camará, who won 10 caps for Portugal’s Under-21s, is another example and as the team’s outlook has brightened it has become easier to tempt players who flew the nest early into setting their sights back on their home nation.
“Many of our players will leave in their early teens and go on to play for their new country, and that’s understandable given the different conditions,” Fernandes says. “But things are slowly changing. In the past, many players were afraid to commit because they knew there would always be a problem with the government and, by association, problems for the football team. Funds and organisation would be lacking. There is still room for improvement but now, having reached the Cup of Nations, we hope this will be the first of many years where players come back.”
The situation remains imperfect. Fernandes remembers having to pay for his own air fares to play in internationals – not remotely unusual in African football – and speaks of the forbearance that was routinely required to overcome the difficulties that still hold a number of the continent’s countries back; the latter were in evidence even before that decisive clash with Zambia, when the team failed to train for three days because of a dispute over missed payments and inadequate working conditions. Guinea-Bissau eventually made it on to the pitch and, somehow, created history.
From a distance it can be easy to roll the eyes at such stories but they are rarely without deeper roots. By most major measures, Guinea-Bissau is comfortably among the 20 poorest countries in the world; in fact it is unlikely that a country lower down the gross domestic product charts has reached a major football tournament and the country’s sport has suffered from the poverty and political instability. Military coups in 2003 and 2012 brought turmoil and it is not overly surprising, given the context, that the national team has played just 31 games in the past decade – and only 12 between 2001 and 2010.
Footballing success may not be a panacea but it certainly affects the wider mood. “I don’t know how far it can influence the country’s political life, but hopefully we will see it do more positive things,” Fernandes says. “When I was a player, every game was such a joy for the people. The stadium would be packed even for training sessions, and even if we lost a game it would be as if we had won – everybody cheering and telling us to keep going. So you can only imagine what it was like when we qualified. The country just ground to a halt for three days, a non-stop party.”
There is scope for the festivities to continue. While many might expect Gabon, in front of a home crowd and spearheaded by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to make light work of Guinea-Bissau on Saturday it has been an uncertain buildup to this tournament for the hosts. Gabon has been unstable since a controversial election in August and there have been wide calls for the Cup of Nations to be boycotted by the local population. Whoever is watching might just see Guinea-Bissau’s “djurtus” – the nickname means “wild dogs” – cause reverberations again.
“The pressure is really on them, so why not?” Fernandes says. “It takes the weight off our team’s shoulders. If Gabon go a goal down you can only imagine the kind of game it will turn into. Everything feels possible for us right now.”
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