Angola can teach 'masters' a lesson

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The Independent Football

Luiz Felipe Scolari rejoins the fray here tomorrow, but the man who turned down England might be advised to tone down his notoriously volatile temper and let his Portugal team do the talking as they take on their former colony, Angola, in a Group D contest with echoes of civil war, slavery and exploitation.

After 400 years of Portuguese rule, the southern African state gained independence only 31 years ago after the army coup that ended fascist rule in Portugal. Yet until the conflict between the warring factions of the MPLA and Unita finally ended in 2002, at the cost of nearly a million lives, Angola was synonymous with slaughter rather than sport. The country is now enjoying a boom fuelled by petro-dollars and hopes to show its one-time masters that the "emerging nation" tag extends to football.

Scolari, having guided Brazil to triumph in the World Cup in 2002 and Portugal to the final of Euro 2004, should know enough about the demands of big tournaments to negotiate this unusual "derby" fixture with something to spare. Even if he is without Deco, the Barcelona playmaker, who is an injury doubt, the man known as "Big Phil" has players of the calibre of Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Simao Sabrosa and Pauleta, who has marginalised Nuno Gomes with his scoring feats.

By contrast, the feelgood factor that should have been manifest after Angola reached the finals for the first time was absent from their mundane display in this year's African Cup of Nations, where their only victims in three matches were their fellow World Cup outsiders Togo. The squad has the advantage of experience of Portuguese football, but, with the exception of the Benfica forward Mantorras, it has tended to come with smaller regional clubs rather than the big Lisbon teams or Porto.

Marco Abreu fits that description, if not exactly neatly. A defender with Portimonese, his family fled to the colonial power in 1975 when he was a toddler, because his father, as a white man, considered his life was in danger. Abreu has never returned. "I'd prefer to have avoided Portugal," he said, acknowledging the awkwardness that comes with trying to embarrass the place you call home, "but I can do nothing about it."

He is confident there will be no repeat of the countries' match in 2001, a violent affair that was abandoned with 20 minutes left after red cards reduced Angola to seven men. Portugal were 5-1 ahead at the time, and had won the previous meeting 6-0 in 1989. Luis Oliveira Goncalves, the Angola coach, must stress the need for discipline if his team are to spring a more wholesome surprise.

Their performances in their final warm-up fixtures, an honourable 2-0 defeat by Argentina and 1-0 loss to the United States behind closed doors, both point to Goncalves putting the emphasis on being difficult to break down and trying to hurt Portugal with quick counter attacks.

Scolari, for his part, may have to cope without Deco. The Brazil-born midfielder, having reputedly stormed out of training on Thursday following an argument, sustained an injured left foot yesterday in a practice-match challenge by his compatriot Costinha.

The last time Scolari was ambushed was when door-stepping UK press men allegedly turned him against the England job (revealing surprising sensitivity for such a renowned bruiser). While Portugal should carry enough creativity for him to avoid a repeat, he will be wary of the side-show of any Angolan hostility becoming the main attraction, and mindful of France's defeat by her former colony Senegal four years ago.