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May 24, 2006

Only playing for pride?

Quantities don't get much more unknown than Angola.

The Black Antelopes come into their first World Cup with ten players based in Europe, but only three of those play for top-flight teams.

Two of their first-teamers do not even have clubs, yet they are hoping that by the end of the tournament names like Lebo Lebo and Zé Kalanga are on the lips of football fans around the world.

The only player even approaching household-name status is Benfica striker Pedro Mantorras, whose searing pace has been hindered by persistent knee injuries and who is unlikely even to start in Germany.

Mantorras fell out with coach Luis Oliveira Goçalves after being left out of the team at the African Cup of Nations, citing a 'lack of respect'.

Mantorras's peeved team-mates promptly ostracised him, and he has now pledged to quit international football after the tournament, aged just 24. Gonçalves insists all rifts have now been patched up but the effect on morale cannot have been positive.

Although there should be a couple of hidden gems in the side, most of the players are unknown for a reason, plying their trade either in the domestic league or the Portuguese lower divisions.

For example defender, Antonio Lebo Lebo is a hero at former club Sagrada Esperança, having scored the goal that secured their first Angolan title in 2005.

Like several other squad members he has been snapped up by rivals Petro Atlético. As the name hints, they are funded by an oil concern, and while their buying power has some way to go to match that of Roman Abramovich, they are an improving force in the domestic game.

Lebo Lebo is a former captain but may struggle for a place in the starting eleven. The official squad list claims he will have just turned 29 when the tournament gets under way, but a head of grey hair suggests otherwise.

Portuguese-born players with Angolan heritage have always played an important role in the team and this year is no exception.

Goalkeeper João Ricardo and midfielder Figueiredo are two key players whose acquaintance with Angola is only passing. However, the country could never be accused of cherry-picking the cream of Portuguese youth to the detriment of its own players.

Figueiredo is a cult icon in his adopted country despite never having played in the Portuguese first division, while João Ricardo has been unable even to find an employer, spending the past season training by himself. Even so, he remains favourite to be Gonçalves's first-choice goalkeeper.

Unfortunately, an attempt to bring in two more players was turned down by FIFA.

Pedro Emanuel of Porto and Chainho of Nacional were prepared to make the leap to Angola - again courtesy of their origins - but their change of nationality was denied because both men represented Portugal at youth level. It was a curious decision, considering that Frédéric Kanouté played for Mali having also been part of the French Under-21 side, and it denied Angola a very fine defender in Pedro Emanuel.

However, FIFA have clarified the ruling so that players must make the switch by the age of 21.

João Ricardo is not alone in being unattached, as Akwá is also without a club after being released by Al-Wakra of Qatar. Nevertheless, he is a vital player, the team captain and the longest-serving player in the squad even though he is only 29.

He made his debut in June 1995 as a 17-year-old, and was trumpeted as the 'new Eusébio' during a spell at Benfica.

Even though he does not have the goalscoring touch of the Portuguese legend, he registered easily the most important strike in his country's history when he headed the only goal against Rwanda in November to book Angola's place in Germany. He will also wear the number ten shirt.

The man who has pushed Mantorras onto the bench is Flávio, who normally plays in a more withdrawn role than Akwá but scored three of Angola's four goals at the African Cup of Nations.

First-choice left-back Yamba Asha misses the tournament because of a drugs ban, but his stand-in Marco Abreu did an adequate job in the African Cup of Nations and will hope to keep his place.

Angolans have always been good at sport, having enjoyed success in basketball, handball and youth-level football. However, the senior team had never before come close to qualifying for the World Cup.

A perfect home record of five wins from five games proved the key. Outside the Angolan capital Luanda, things were rather less straightforward, with their only away win coming in the final match against the group's whipping boys Rwanda. That 1-0 triumph ensured they pipped Nigeria to top spot in Group 4 thanks to their better head-to-head record.

The African Cup of Nations earlier this year gave a few clues as to how Angola will approach the tournament.

Worryingly, they suffered a first round exit.

Cameroon humbled them 3-0 and they could only draw with the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they at least secured a morale-boosting 3-2 win against fellow World Cup qualifiers Togo, who slumped out losing all three games.

Subsequent friendlies have brought a mixture of tough assignments such as Korea Republic and Argentina, along with some rather easier matches.

They cannot have learned much from easy victories against Mauritius and Lesotho, but the 5-1 and 3-1 results at least allowed the players to find their shooting boots.

Akwá and André scored two goals each in the first match, while Zé Kalanga bagged a brace against Lesotho. It is fair to say they will notice the step up in class when they take on Portugal in their opening match.

Truthfully the team looks as weak as any in Germany, but the Angolan players will be determined to enjoy themselves given the scale of what they have achieved.

Three ruinous decades of civil war brought the country to its knees, destroying the sporting infrastructure and causing countless tragedies such as that which hit Nando Rafael, an Angolan-born striker now playing for Germany Under-21s.

When he was eight his entire village was massacred and his parents killed, and Rafael only survived because he was playing football in a neighbouring settlement. It must be hoped that World Cup qualification strengthens the country's fragile unity and helps it gain some international recognition.