After years of chaos and disappointing results, the Guinea-Bissau team seems to be on track again, mostly thanks to the efforts of Luis Norton de Matos, a Portuguese coach. With new players and young talents, the future looks bright. But political turmoil and a total lack of organization might ruin it all.
When Portuguese Luis Norton de Matos was appointed as the new manager of Guinea-Bissau, there was a feeling of hope among football fans in the country. At the same time, many Portuguese pundits raised their eyebrows: not because Norton de Matos was widely regarded as a top coach in his home country, but because football in Guinea was no less than chaotic. The national team didn't even play regularly: between 2003 and 2009 there are few records of matches. Many players based in Portugal simply didn't want to travel to Bissau, because of political turmoil and extremely poor facilities and conditions.
Early in 2010, when Norton was invited to take charge of the Djurtus, Guinea-Bissau stood in an uncomfortable 195th place in the FIFA Ranking. Now that the coach is set to leave the national team, Guinea holds the 160th position, something that reflects the impact Norton de Matos had in the Bissau side.
Luis Norton de Matos was no stranger to African football. Before moving to Bissau, he was in charge of Étoile Lusitana, a football club based in Senegal, founded in 2008 by José Mourinho. Norton was invited to coach the team and also to direct its youth academy - something he happily accepted, as his previous experiences at Portuguese clubs were far from perfect. In 2005, despite some good results, he left his job at Vitória de Setúbal because of the club's poor financial situation, and in 2006, at Vitória de Guimarães, he was sacked after a poor run.
As soon as he arrived in Bissau, Norton de Matos announced that his main goal was to finally get the nation through the first qualifying round for the African Cup of Nations, and to improve the national squad with the World Cup 2014 qualifiers in mind. Things couldn't have started better; in the first match of Norton's era Guinea-Bissau won 1-0 against Kenya, and thousands of supporters celebrated on the streets. That was the first win for the Djutus in an official match for over 10 years. Matos and the local press couldn't hide their absolute delight.
After a couple of good performances and two wins in friendly matches (over Gambia and neighbours Equatorial-Guinea), there was plenty of hope for the World Cup qualifying match against Togo. In front of a crowd of more than 5,000 Guinea played what Norton recalled as the “best match” since he arrived, holding the Togolese to a 1-1 draw. Guinea-Bissau eventually lost 1-0 in Togo a few days later, but it was obvious the national team was changing for the better. More recently, in a World Cup 2014 Qualifier, Guinea-Bissau faced African giants Cameroon, and fought bravely. The Djutus lost 0-1, with the away side's goal coming in the last seconds of the match, and after Guinea had a goal disallowed. The second leg will take place in June, and even with few chances of going through, the result and performance in Bissau were good enough to bring a new hope to local supporters and football enthusiasts.
Norton's first mission was to convince talented players born in the country (or with Guinean parents) to adopt Guinea's colours. A former Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau always had quite a few players representing decent clubs in Portugal, but they usually wanted to represent the Selecção Nacional instead of Guinea-Bissau. Norton wasted no time in odentifying several players and bringing them back to their homeland, and that's been appointed as the main reason for the recent good results. The team is now packed with players that either play or played in some of the best Portuguese sides.
Almani Moreira is probably the best example. A promising youngster at Boavista, Moreira spent much of his career at Standard Liege and Partizan, and also played for German side Hamburg. A talented and goal-scoring attacking midfielder, Moreira had hoped, in vain, for a chance with the Portuguese national team. In 2010, after Norton arrived, he was called-up and accepted the challenge to play for his home nation. And so did Ivanildo, a pacy left-winger, previously with FC Porto and now playing in the top-flight with Olhanense. Sami, a young forward and one of the revelations of this season's Maritimo, is also playing for Guinea-Bissau, despite spending his whole youth career in Portugal.
The team is now a mix of experience - the already mentioned Moreira, Lokomotiv Plovdiv's Basile Carvalho, Oliveirense's central-defender Banjai, and Vasas Budapest's anchorman Ednilson (previously with Boavista, Roma, Benfica and Partizan), and some of the most talented youngsters in the Portuguese leagues. Norton de Matos didn't wait to call Sancidino Silva, regarded as one of the hottest prospects in the Benfica U19 squad, and Zezinho, who spent three years in Sporting's youth ranks and is now on loan to second tier side Atlético Portugal.
Unfortunately, the excitement around these new players is still not enough to ensure things will effectively change from now on for Guinea-Bissau. The FA is still facing heavy financial problems, and Norton de Matos has been especially critical of the lack of organization and conditions. Just before the match against Togo, the coach was particularly vocal: “Togo arrived in Bissau a few days ago, and they'll have 3 or 4 training sessions here. Most of our squad is still in Portugal”. Matos was also worried about a lack of money: “We won't take our goalkeeping coach to Togo because there is no money to pay his ticket. And I can only take 20 players to the away match, while Togo managed to bring 23 here. WWhen everything seems to go well, things just go wrong because of a mistake or total lack of organization”.
Political turmoil also doesn't help Guinea's hopes. A few months ago, there was yet another attempt of a coup d’état by the military. Sana, a young midfielder playing for Spanish side Valladolid, was in Bissau and couldn't return in time to Spain because the airports were all closed. An anonymous player complained it's always a headache to get in Bissau, and said he had a lot of trouble in his club after failing to come back to his club in time after a national side match, something that made him “rethink” his presence in future matches. Before the exciting match against Cameroon, Norton complained that he couldn't count with Bacundji Cá because Stade Reims had a decisive match and didn't want to lose the midfielder, and Everton's Francisco Santos and Nice's Ismael Gonçalves said they didn't receive any official notification to join the squad, so they were staying in Europe. Lack of security measures is an issue too: after the match against Cameroon, supporters threw stones and bottles to the field, and the away players and the referees had to wait almost 40 minutes to leave the pitch. After the incidents, hundreds of fans rioted near the FA's headquarters in Bissau.
Norton is now set to leave Guinea-Bissau, allegedly to be the coach of the new Benfica's B team, but he revealed he's available to coach the team in the away leg match against Cameroon in June. He also stated he “recommended” a coach to be his successor in the Djutus, someone he says would continue his work. It is still unclear if the recent developments will continue, and if the results will keep improving. The team seems to be in the right path now, with better players than ever, the national stadium set for reconstruction work, and a true excitement around the national squad. If that'll prove enough to change football in Bissau remains to be seen.
For more from Francisco, visit his blog.