For the past month, my key chain has sported a cheesy plastic key ring depicting the Angolan flag, two simple red and black bars with commie-clip-art sickle-shaped piece of a cog crossed with a machete (where the hammer would be). It was my own private show of support for that country’s heroic, almost Quixotic campaign to best the might Super Eagles of Nigeria, veritably the Brazil of African football, to qualify for the World Cup in Germany next year. South Africa’s own Bafana Bafana had proved too spectacularly crap to qualify — although we’re the hosts in 2010, the only South Africans on the field in Germany next year will be the singers and dancers providing the traditional cultural preview in next year’s closing ceremony. (More on the reasons for that failure another time, when Cde. Maguire gets his act together…)
And last Saturday, in a nailbiting finish, Angola got the goal to take them through, veteran striker Fabrice Akwa scoring in the closing minutes of their final qualifier against Rwanda in Kigali. Local media described the celebration that broke out in that moment as the largest Angola has seen since independence 30 years ago.
Although they’ve continued playing their domestic season through the worst years of the civil war, the arrival on the international stage of the Palancas Negras (Black Gazelles) may, in the national imagination, confirm the sense of a new dawn for a long-suffering nation. Yes, yes, I know, a rather lightweight nickname for a national football team, considerably more macho than that of Bourkina Faso (who Bafana Bafana failed to beat) whose players have the misfortune of playing under the official nickname of “The Squirrels.”
Angola’s victory over Rwanda was my happiest football result since last year’s Champion’s League final If you love the underdog, you’ve got to love Angola, so scarred by war that it’d have to be considered a three-legged underdog, the fourth limb having been lost to a landmine — Angola has the misfortune of housing in its soil the world’s greatest concentration of anti-personnel ordinance. There’s no end to the reasons why honorable football fans everywhere ought to support them in Germany next year:
• Not only because Angola has given the world some of its finest footballers: Pele, Jairzinho, Garrincha, Ronaldinho, Robinho… What’s that you say? They’re all Brazilian? Yes, of course, but descendants of slaves, and most of Brazil’s slaves came, of course, from Angola.
• Not only because Angola gave the world some of my favorite foods, from chilis to okra. As my esteemed consultant Anna Trapido has pointed out, most of the cooking of the Southern US and elsewhere in the Americas hails from Angola. “Gumbo,” she says, “is simply the Ovimbundu name for okra.” To my query of how it would be that okra made it into the south Asian cab driver fare that remains my favorite nighttime street food in New York, she pointed what in retrospect should have been an obvious answer: Goa – the Portuguese shipped it from their African colony to their Asian one.
• Not only because Angola gave an appropriate welcome to one of my friends, who as an empty-headed white teenage conscript, had invaded in an SADF armored car blaring Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” from a megaphone. Thanks to Cuban air power, of course, the Boer army was finally forced to surrender at Cuito Cuanavale a decade later, making Angola the site of the only military defeat of the apartheid regime – a defeat that forced it let go, also, of its Namibia colony (the Cubans were tough negotiators, too) a setback that heralded the beginning of the collapse of minority rule.
• Not only because Angola was where two of my good friends learned to strip a Kalashnikov (and other, related martial arts) in camps that the ANC’s armed wing maintained there – a gesture of solidarity for which the Angolans paid a heavy price under the guns of the South African regime. (My friends have fond memories of an open-air amphitheater cinema in Luanda where you could grab a beer and watch movies under the night sky during the occasional furlough – except that the only movies they had were Soviet military training films, and there was a limit to how many times you could sit through “The Use of Armor at the Battle of Kharkov” and such like.
• Not only because Angola was the setting for “The Real Life of Domingos Xavier,” one of those books I was encouraged to read in my ANC days in order to prepare me for the probability of interrogation by the apartheid secret police – I kept waiting for the uplifting denouement as the hero, an underground militant of the MPLA was tortured to death by the Portugese colonial police in Luanda, only to be told at the end that his death marked the beginning of his “real life” – “in the hearts of the Angolan people.” Oy, reassuring it was not.
• Not only because Angola sent its troops into Congo, then Zaire, at a crucial moment, to help topple the loathsome Mobutu dictatorship.
The real reason for my adopting Angola as the team of my sentimental heart is the inspiration of its story. This unhappy land in which a half million people have been killed in a 27-year civil war that was initially Cold War-driven but subsequently became simply a quest for power by Ronald Reagan’s pal Jonas Savimbi. There up to 20 million land mines dispersed across Angola – one for every two people – and, not surprisingly, an amputee population of more than 70,000. That Angola has continued to play football at all is a triumph of the spirit; that it has qualified for the World Cup is a rare moment of magic.
Angola is a country with a lot of healing to do. And I can think of no finer way to bring a country together than to send its footballers to the World Cup. Because as CLR James long ago noted, nothing can capture the imagination of a nation quite like an international sports clash – football more than any other.
While star striker Mantorras earns his keep in Portugal with Benfica and one or two others play in Europe and Arab countries, half of the squad play in the semi-professional domestic league — including the fabulously named striker, Love. And I must confess to feeling a special warmth in the fact that there are a couple of whiteys still on their team – not all the Portuguese settlers left, some, more idealistic elements were happy to stay and throw in their lot with the new post-colonial order.
For years, the best Angolan and Mozambican footballers had to represent Portugal, their colonial master — among them Eusebio, the Mozambican who would be remembered as the finest player of his generation were he not playing at the same time as Pele.
It’s still hard for Angola to persuade its talented youngsters abroad to play for the old country. Rio Mavuba, for example, has opted to seek international glory with France. But I have no doubt that he, and every other Angolan everywhere in the world; every other Lusophone African, every sentimental Brazilian, even, will be rooting for Fabrice Akwa and his men. I know I will.