Qualification for Guinea-Bissau may have been confirmed with a game to spare, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it came without its share of drama. After two games the former Portuguese colony had just one point on the board and were three points off the pace.
They could have been forgiven for thinking that qualification was beyond reach at that stage. After all, they are a nation that had hitherto only won four matches in AFCON and World Cup qualification combined since the mid 1990s, when they first entered international competition. Yet they persevered, recording back-to-back 1-0 victories over Kenya to put themselves back in contention.
Next up, it was Zambia at home. The Guinea-Bissau team had spent the three days before the game refusing to train because of a dispute with their federation over non-payment of appearance fees. On the day though, they showed no signs that their idleness had impacted their match fitness.
In fact, they went toe-to-toe with Zambia for the entirety of the game. Indeed, the game was 2-2 and petering out when, in the 96th minute, Toni Silva capitalised on an error in the Zambian defence to race away and finish calmly past Kennedy Mweene to spark delirium in the stands. A day later, Congo’s loss to Kenya would ensure Guinea-Bissau’s four-point lead was unassailable.
The peripatetic Frederic Mendy and Silva, two of the goal-scorers, were both debutants on that memorable afternoon, and the Guinea-Bissau football federation has been working overtime to convince players with a link to the country to don the red jersey since their qualification. As a result, like Equatorial Guinea, the players are a ragtag group of the refined and the unrefined; though Portuguese is the official language in Guinea-Bissau, not everyone in the team speaks it.
The injury to striker Cicero just days before the tournament has come as a big blow. The Pacos de Ferreira striker was the team’s chief goal-scorer and was one of the more experienced players in the team. The responsibility to lead the attack will now fall on the inconsistent Mendy, who shone on his debut versus Zambia, displaying the sort of attributes that could see him competently lead the attack on his own.
Man for man, and collectively, Guinea-Bissau arguably bring the worst squad to the tournament. They will need to replicate the togetherness they showed in qualifying and perform at optimum levels if they are to have a chance of progressing from the easiest group they could have wished for.
Guinea-Bissau play in the underdog’s favourite formation: 4-5-1. The focus is on defending as a team and attacking as a team. That may seem like a faint assessment of their modus operandi but, as long term members of the squad readily admit, it was something they were not doing over the years. The skipper Bocundji Ca sits at the base of midfield and he does plenty of directing from deep, ensuring his players take the right positions in the defensive phases of play. The attacking players have full freedom to express themselves when going forward and much of the play will go through their attacking midfielder Zezinho.
Attacking flair – There’s quite a bit of flair in their attack and this could warm them to neutrals. Zezinho is at the heart of this flair but Toni Silva and Piqueti also bring bags of pace and directness down the flanks. They are technically able and dynamic enough to fashion chances. The question is whether they can play cohesively, especially when chasing games against higher quality opponents, but the bigger question is whether the men behind them will give them the rigid roots to strut their stuff.
Questionable quality – There are more question marks than answers about the quality of their players and, most importantly, their quality as a team. Defeating Kenya 1-0 in successive matches and an increasingly workaday Zambia side are good results but nothing continent-shaking. There’s a risk that, like the motley crews of Equatorial Guinea in 2012 and 2015, that quality will eventually tell and Guinea-Bissau could get embarrassed at the tournament when they meet a side in full swing.
Zezinho – Pizazz is obligatory when you have a name like that, and Zezinho brings it, with some gewgaw thrown in for good measure. Along with Ca, he is one of the team’s elder statesmen despite his relative youth. While Ca is far more recognisable after his years in the top two tiers of French football, Zezinho has a significantly lesser profile. Currently based in Greece with Levadiakos, the 25-year-old is the creative fulcrum of his side and the onus will be on him to conjure Javier Balboa-esque moments of magic.
The Hipster’s Choice
Toni Silva – Prototypical raw winger with an eye for goal. On the books of Chelsea and Liverpool before tumbling down to Barnsley, then CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria and now, like team-mate Zezinho, at Levadiakos. Fans and managers are often initially enthused before his inconsistency loses him the admiration. Still just 23, and with less than a handful of caps to his name, these grand stages are made for players like him.
Baciro Cande – The 68-year-old replaced Paulo Torres in February last year, leaving his club side Sporting de Bissau for the second bite to coach his nation after an eight-year tenure ended in 2010. Cande is a tactically conservative coach who is aiming for a quarter-final berth. He needs big performances from his players for his over-achievement objective to come to fruition.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- Prior to 2016, Guinea-Bissau had won just one of their previous 17 matches.
- At the start of AFCON Qualifying, Guinea-Bissau had just a 1% chance of reaching the finals. After 2 of 6 match days, those odds had increased to just 1.2%.
- Guinea-Bissau was WGF’s Team of the Year in 2016, climbing 32 spots in the rankings. This rise was more than any team in the world.
- Without playing a friendly since 2011, Guinea-Bissau made the most of their opportunities. They had a 0 goal differential in qualifying and finished on 10 points. These were both lowest of all qualified teams to play 6 matches.
- In Guinea-Bissau’s past 8 games away from home, all teams have combined for a total of 8 goals scored.
- The draw was as favourable as possible, and at 27% to advance, there are others worse off.
- Guinea-Bissau is projected to finish 4th in Group A with an average point projection of 2.62.
- At odds of 139 to 1, or 0.72% to win the tournament, Guinea-Bissau ranks ahead of only Togo in championship odds.
Group Stage exit – As good as their achievement in qualifying is, they have hardly faced the crème de la crème of African football. They will need to quickly form as a group and perform well, especially in defence.