After 8 years without a game the national team of São Tomé e Príncipe are back, with surprising results.
When Libya rounded off an 9-0 aggregate win over São Tomé e Príncipe in November 2003 it marked not only the end of the islands 2006 World Cup campaign, but also the last match the Selecão dos Falcões e Papagaios (falcons and parrots) would play for almost 8 years. Having gained independence from Portugal in 1975 it took the two island nation the best part of two decades to enter the World Cup but they withdrew from qualification for the 1994 finals before a ball was kicked. This would prove to be a recurring theme with São Tomé e Príncipe not entering 4 of the last 6 Cup of African Nations qualification campaigns, and they have contested only 2 World Cup preliminaries. A poor nation anyway, minimal government sponsorship does not help the football federation. The late 90’s and early 00’s were somewhat of a peak for Santomean football with a first competitive victory secured courtesy of a 2-0 home defeat of Sierra Leone in 2002 World Cup qualification. However after the thrashing in Benghazi things went downhill and with no action for 4 years the islands were taken off the FIFA rankings in 2007. A population of 169,000 is Africa’s second smallest, and with such expensive access to other nations the Federação Santomense de Futebol (FSF) has always found money an issue. These basic economic restraints are added to other problems such as poor healthcare and a lack of football experience on the islands.
A lot of the blame for the international exile was aimed at Manuel Dende, the controversial former president of the FSF. Despite receiving yearly grants from FIFA the money clearly wasn’t invested in football, with the domestic league sporadically played and no senior international action taking place between 2003 and 2011. Dende was summoned to Zurich by FIFA in 2009 and a year later Sepp Blatter visited the islands, confirming a wind of change in Santomean football. In 2011 former army lieutenant Idalécio Pachire was put in charge of the federation and Brazilian Gustavo Clemente was appointed national coach after it was confirmed São Tomé e Príncipe would contest the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Clement spent 5 months preparing his purely home-based side for the November showdown with Congo, and the vast majority of players had no experience of football outside the occasionally played amateur São Tomé league. Only one player from the much smaller island of Principe made the squad, forward Reny Lima. 3,000 people attended the Estadio Nacional on November 11th and fears of the falcons and parrots being too inexperienced were soon realised, with the hosts conceding 3 goals before the half hour mark. Number 4 came shortly after half-time and there was more frustration for the home crowd before the visitors bagged their 5th and final goal, as 22-year old midfielder Ibrahimo Bengo sent a penalty wide.
After the disappointment of the first match it was easy to assume the second leg in Pointe-Noire would be another heavy scoreline but remarkably the young Falcões e Papagaios took a second half lead when teenage midfielder Orgando dos Santos fired a 25-yard rocket into the top corner. The goal was the islanders first in eleven years and despite Congo equalising soon after the game finished 1-1, a remarkable score considering the capitulation at home. Prior to the game the Santomean had gone through the almost traditional travel panic, but eventually enough money was put together for the flights. The team returned to São Tomé to a warm reception, with president Manuel Pinto da Costa praising the players and staff for their ‘honourable representation of the national colours’. Despite the public positivity now surrounding the side there were calls for the inclusion of foreign-based players, with some fans feeling the team was still too inexperienced. Santomean players competing abroad are hard to come by but notable examples include Luis Leal at Portuguese top-flight side U.D. Leiria and striker Ludgerio Silva, who has worked his way up the same country’s lower leagues and now plays at U.D. Madeira in the second tier. 28 year old defender William Barbosa has also found success abroad, playing in the regionalised Brazilian 5th level for E.S. Sao Luiz. The perennial problem – money – meant these players weren’t called up for their nation’s third game in 8 years when they were drawn against Lesotho in the preliminary round of the 2013 Cup of African Nations qualification, scheduled just 2 months after the Congo tie.
Clemente stuck with his young side and the host’s remote location no doubt gave them an edge as the visitors had to seek permission to delay the match by a week after they had trouble with flights to São Tomé. Though weaker than previous opponents Congo the Lesotho side still presented a tough obstacle for Clemente’s team, but in the 3rd minute São Tomé e Príncipe were awarded a penalty and 17-year old midfielder Jair Nunez opened the scoring. From then on it was one-way traffic and Lesotho managed to hit the woodwork seven times but the Falcões e Papagaios held on for an astonishing win – their first since 2000. Any hopes of progressing seemed slim however as never before had a team from Sao Tome e Principe got through a two-legged tie, and no away trip for the national team had ended in a clean sheet. Lesotho were delayed by 4 days in Gabon on the way home and arrived back the evening before the second leg. As a result Clemente decided that instead of sitting back during the game they would attack, and although Thapelo Tale missed a glorious chance late on for the hosts the visitors held out for a history making result. Upon their return home the side were mobbed at the airport by cheering fans and president da Costa claimed the victory meant ‘now nothing can stop us’.
The popular Clemente was more subdued with his celebrations stating ‘the task is difficult but the dream is possible’. Difficult indeed. Just days after the historic victory Pachire announced that it was unlikely the Falcões e Papagaios would be able to play the second round tie against Sierra Leone due to financial difficulties.