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May 8, 2006

Angola tap into rich talent seam in Portugal

LUANDA, May 8 (Reuters) - Lying on the dark mahogany desk of the general secretary of the Angolan Football Federation, in the bowels of Luanda's Cidadela sports complex, is a dog-eared copy of a pre-season guide to the Portuguese league.

The colourful book, issued annually by the daily newspaper A'Bola and called 'Cadernos', has become a bible of sorts for Angola's international football aspirations.

It has allowed successive Angolan coaches and officials to find players with connections to their country playing in the league of their former colonial power Portugal and effectively add a more competitive edge to their national side, the 'Palancas Negras' - the Black Antelopes.

Portugal, who, ironically, meet the Angolans in their first game at the World Cup finals in Cologne on June 11, have a 500-year association with Angola and left the country in 1975 when independence was won.

With it came a brutal civil war and the large-scale departure of the descendants of Portuguese settlers back to the motherland.

It is from these families that Angola have found a steady source of quality footballers, few of whom have any more links to the country save for a birthplace and the fading memories of their parents.

OFFICIAL POLICY

Just over 10 years ago, when Angola first qualified for the African Nations Cup finals, coach Carlos Alhinho travelled to Lisbon and offered trials to Portuguese players born in Angola.

It started an official policy for the Angolan Football Federation of actively pursuing players across the world with links to the country.

A stylish midfielder at Benfica and FC Porto and former Portugal international, Alhinho himself came from the colonies, born in the Cape Verde islands, and was well aware of the rich pickings available to the former Portuguese territories if they were to look for players in the Portuguese league.

For the 1996 Nations Cup tournament, Angola were strengthened by the inclusion of brothers Walter and Wilson Novo Estrela and Rui Barbosa, who played in Portugal's second division at the obscure Taifa.

Since then, there has been a steady selection of Portuguese players reclaiming their Angolan heritage and being offered the chance at an international career by the southern African country.

Many have been found through the pages of the pre-season guide, which successive officials have scoured for players with Angolan links, checking birthplaces or the pen pictures for clues.

Angolan internationals in Portugal have also played a part in discovering players with similar backgrounds among their colleagues.

DIFFERENT MENTALITY

Fullback Marco Abreu, for example, was recommended to national coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves by a former club mate. Marco Abreu was last in Angola as a toddler but stands a good chance of making the squad for the finals in Germany after impressing at January's African Nations Cup finals in Egypt.

'It is so different, so much more relaxed and with a different mentality and approach,' Abreu said of the Angolan camp in Cairo in an interview with Reuters earlier this year.

More representative of the players in Angola's diaspora are midfielder Figueiredo and goalkeeper Joao Ricardo, both journeymen footballers who would not have included the World Cup in their wildest dreams until a few years ago.

Figueiredo, despite never having played in the top flight in Portugal, has become a folk hero in Angola for his gritty midfield displays and acumen from set pieces which have delivered some vital goals for the country of his birth.

He was first approached in 2003 by Angola's Brazilian-born coach Ismael Kurtz after his profile showed he had been born in Luanda.

Joao Ricardo has also offered Angola some solidity in goal despite the fact that at 36 he is no longer able to get a contract in Portugal.

Both played in the World Cup qualifiers last year and are expected to be in the starting line-up in Germany.

The latest addition to the list of expatriate finds is the FC Porto defender Pedro Emanuel, who agreed in February to play for Angola when it became obvious he had no chance of making the Portuguese squad.

He was in Porto's side when they won the UEFA Champions League title in 2004 and the UEFA Cup the preceding year, making him potentially the biggest hero to emerge from the pages of the Portuguese league guide.