African qualifiers Angola enter their final Group D match at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals with their qualification hopes for the second round still alive.
A victory over Iran in Leipzig this afternoon and a defeat for Mexico at the hands of already-qualified Portugal could result in the ‘Black Antelopes’ defying the odds and securing a place in the knockout phase of the world’s biggest competition.
In recent years Angola has been more famous for its oil reserves and the 27-year civil war that followed its declaration of independence from Portugal in 1975 than its football. However, the shaky peace that has existed since 2002 has enabled the country to reconstruct itself, and Angola now possesses Africa’s fastest-growing economy. The economic revival has been facilitated by the country’s oil reserves, which both East and West fought to gain control over during the Cold War.
The Angolan squad had spoken before the tournament of their desire to make their country proud and famous for something different, and after two matches they stand on the verge of achieving this. Popular coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves has already overseen a narrow defeat to former colonial occupiers Portugal and a 0-0 draw with World Cup regulars Mexico. This afternoon he will be hoping that his players can end their goal drought and spark wild celebrations back home.
Goncalves, who won the 2001 African Youth Championships with the Angolan under-20s, is the only African coach at the finals and he will be optimistic that his strikers can find the net against the Iranians. The Asian qualifiers have already conceded five goals in their two appearances so far at the finals and Goncalves is likely to change his team’s tactics today in attempt to test Iran’s defence even further. Benfica forward Mantorras was once the great hope of Angolan football but a series of injuries has limited his development. In a revamped 4-4-2 formation he is likely to give support up-front to captain Fabrice Akwa, who publicly declared his need for a striker partner before the 0-0 draw with Mexico last week.
“It will be very difficult for us to reach the second phase but we must remember that nothing is decided at this stage,” Goncalves said on Monday.
“The game with Iran is very important and we must win it to stand any chance of progressing. To do this we must obviously score a goal, and we will be playing in a more attacking style. We had an objective when we came to the World Cup, which was to unite our troubled country. Reading the reports of the celebrations back home it seems that we have already done this. Now we want to be the providers of even more joy.”
Assistant coach Alvaro de Almeida Mabi concurred with his boss about the need to attack, and warned the players to expect a tough encounter this afternoon.
“We have to score goals and so it natural that we will line-up with an attacking formation,” Mabi stated yesterday.
“We are hopeful we can win but the game against Iran will be very difficult. Angola will be playing against strong opponents who won’t want to leave the tournament with three defeats.”
The inclusion of Mantorras, at the probable expense of Rui Marques, is the only change likely to be made by Goncalves this afternoon. Angola’s impressive defence, led by the solid-looking central pairing of Kali and Jamba, will be confident of keeping out the Iranians, having limited Portugal and Mexico to just one goal between them in their opening matches.
Iran’s appearance in Leipzig today has already been shrouded in political controversy, something that the players have been trying to distance themselves from. Tournament organisers have breathed a heavy sigh of relief this morning after it emerged that this afternoon’s planned rally by Germany’s extreme-right National Democratic Party outside the Zentralstadion has been cancelled. Administrators and police had feared that the rally, planned to display support for the anti-Israel stance shown by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could be a potential flashpoint and a threat to the harmonious atmosphere generated thus far by the finals.
Political distractions are nothing new for the Iranian squad. The demonstrations – against anti-Semitism – that greeted them in Nuremberg and Frankfurt ahead of their opening defeats are evidence of this. How much of an effect this has had on the squad is uncertain, but one certainty is that they have been eliminated from the World Cup already and are playing only for pride this afternoon in what will be their first-ever encounter with Angola.
Iran’s Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic will be hoping that his beleaguered defence will provide sterner resistance today than it has shown in the opening matches. The Iranians were opened-up with relative ease by Mexico in the opening 3-1 defeat, while the 2-0 reverse against Portugal that sealed Iran’s elimination could have been even greater. Ivankovic’s defensive problems have been compounded by the loss of tough-tackling holding midfielder Javad Nekounam to suspension following his two yellow cards in each of the opening games.
The other main problem for Ivankovic is the likely absence of Iran’s best player, the Bayern Munich playmaker Ali Karimi. Karimi has looked physically fragile so far at the finals and has been unable to reproduce his club form on the big stage. He is likely to be left out this afternoon in favour of the veteran striker Ali Daei, thus ending an unhappy tournament for him in his adopted country.
The pride of Ivankovic and his players has taken a severe knock, and management and squad are both looking to end the tournament on a high.
“We want to go out with a final victory,” said Ivankovic, who will resign from his position as coach after the match.
“We know that Angola are a good team and are looking to qualify for the next round but we are hoping for a dignified exit.”
German-based midfielder Ferydoon Zandi echoed his coach’s comments.
“It is a matter of honour and pride for us now and we’ll give it our best in our last game,” he predicted.
“We want to bid the tournament a worthy farewell because the way we say goodbye to the World Cup is important for us all. We’d like to finish third in the group, but we know that Angola will be tough opposition.”
By Mark Robinson
Iran: Mirzapour; Kaebi, Rezaei, Bakhtiarizadeh, Nosrati; Mahdavikia, Zandi, Madanchi, Taymoorian; Hashemian, Daei
Angola: Ricardo; Loco, Jamba, Kali, Delgado; Ze Kalanga, Figueiredo, Mateus, Mendonca; Mantorras, Akwa
Referee: Mark Shield (Australia)