Guinea Bissau's historic African Nations Cup qualification campaign
The influence of Africa on Portuguese football is constantly recalled by the elevated status that Eusebio, Mario Coluna and Matateu enjoy among the country's sporting greats. But Portugal is paying back a rich debt to its former colonies on the continent as the provider of a new generation of players who have taken the tiny Cape Verde Islands to a place at the top table of the African game and now Guinea Bissau to a first-ever African Nations Cup appearance.
Qualification for Djurtus, as Guinea Bissau's national team are known, to the next edition of the continental championship is the latest fairy tale inspired by the tight Lusophone connections.
Cape Verde rose from obscurity to two successive Nations Cup appearances, plus a five-month run as the highest-placed African side in the FIFA rankings, on the back of a concerted bid to strengthen their national team with players from the Diaspora. By actively seeking out players of Cape Verdean heritage born in Europe (most of them in Portugal), to bolster their squad had the almost immediate effect of elevating the tiny island nation to a Nations Cup contender. Their shock elimination of the mighty Cameroon in the 2013 qualifiers alone was a major statement about their potential.
The rapid ascent continued at the tournament itself with a shock run to the quarterfinals, followed by a close call in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Their run was only stymied by an administrative error when they were docked points for using a player who should have been sitting out a key qualifier because of suspension. As a result, they did not make the decisive playoffs despite a famous away victory in Tunisia but Cape Verde returned to the 2015 Nations Cup, eliminated without losing a game and then went to the top of the African rankings, reinforcing their current role among the top African teams.
Guinea Bissau have taken a leaf out of their book and also looked to Lisbon for reinforcements. In the past they always had one or two Portuguese-based players in their squad but over the past year, they have rapidly bolstered their team with expatriates who have taken them from perennial also-rans into surprise qualifiers.
Two of the latest additions scored on their debut in the 3-2 win over Zambia on Saturday, a win that effectively secured the country their spot in the tournament. French-born Frederic Mendy, previously a top scorer in Singapore, was called up after moving to Estoril, where his profile in Portugal and roots in Guinea Bissau brought him to the attention of national coach Baciro Cande.
The other scorer was former Benfica junior Toni Silva, who spent the last season at relegated Uniao Madeira but previously played at Northampton Town, Barnsley and Dagenham & Redbridge. There are now only one or two players from the clubs in Guinea Bissau left in the squad. The latest additions came from Sporting Lisbon, Estoril, Vitoria Guimaraes and Uniao Madeira, as well as a club in Finland.
Given all the foibles around the team, qualification is a remarkable success story. The fight on the field has been matched by a relentless struggle off it for the players to be paid and offered the conditions conducive to international football. Remarkably, the win over Zambia came despite refusing for three successive days to train as the players waited for past payments to be made.
"It's always the same story. They do not treat us with dignity, respect and professionalism. They lie shamelessly: 'Return to your club and will send money,' but nothing comes," one anonymous player told a radio station in Bissau before the game. "There is nobody to make a serious commitment to solve the problem."
Guinea Bissau is among the world's 10 poorest countries. The Nations Cup qualification is a rare success story for this tropical destination and its small population of under two million.
Before they began the 2017 Nations Cup qualifiers, Guinea Bissau had played just 32 competitive internationals, in either Nations Cup or World Cup qualifying. Their record was four wins, six draws and 22 losses. Saturday's win over Zambia was their third of this campaign alone and with the one they secured at the start, away against the 2012 Nations Cup winners in Ndola, they have amassed 10 points -- enough to ensure top place in a group they were expected to prop up.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.