For many it will be a revelatory experience to watch how Guinea Bissau play in this edition of the African Cup of Nations. But for Portuguese fans, the Djurtus are a more than recognisable team. They are a familiar one.
We are not talking about naturalizations, as it has happened with other countries. Above all, it is a matter of taking advantage of a string of Guinean players who have traveled to Portugal to complete their development, many of them playing for the youth Portuguese national teams, but with no room to represent the main Portuguese team.
There is a name that everybody knows in Portugal, Cátio Baldé, who was named Executive Director of the Guinean national team for this Cup of Nations. The businessman has been working between Bissau and Lisbon since the 1980s, and nowadays we find Guinean players in the various academy teams of FC Porto, SL Benfica and Sporting CP, as well as several other teams in the U17 and U19 Portuguese national championships.
For many Guinean players, Cátio Baldé is a father, for the way he allowed them to enter the path of professional football. But he is also a controversial figure, having been accused of abandoning some of the young Guineans who had less success in Portugal, being involved in a confusing saga that led to the departure of Bruma from Sporting and even accused, in his own country, for, in the past, attempting to prevent his players from representing Guinea Bissau.
The story began to change when, in 2010, Luis Norton de Matos was hired as national coach, choosing to call to the team a series of young players, who were born in Guinea or with roots in the country, evolving in Portugal. Almami Moreira, Ednilson, Cícero or Abel Camará were some of the names that, having already represented Portugal at the youth levels, accepted to wear the Djurtus jerseys.
Norton de Matos himself said that, having invited Éder to play for Guinea-Bissau, he traveled to tell him personally that he would rather wait for a call from the Portuguese national team. The truth is that the Lille striker scored the goal of Portugal’s victory in the Euro 2016 and represents, today, a true example for many of the Guineans who believe they can achieve the same success in an African Cup of Nations. Having been born in Bissau, Éder went to Portugal as a child, not being one of the “sons” of Cátio Baldé.
Paulo Torres, the Portuguese coach who succeeded Norton de Matos, maintained the same call-to-play policy for the national team, and although Baciro Candé, an experienced Guinean coach, is responsible for Djurtus’ presence in the African Cup of Nations, the truth is that the Portuguese influence in the backroom staff is still big, with João Gião as assistant coach, Filipe Moreira as goalkeeper coach and Nélson Pires as a physiotherapist.
Looking inside the pitch, of the twenty-three players summoned, only three never played in Portugal, and none of them started in the opening day. Of the twenty who have played in Portuguese teams, eight have represented Portugal at different competitive levels, with Abel Camará and Aldair Baldé representing the Under-21 and Saná team having been runners-up in the Under-20 World Championship.
The list of Guinean players passing through the Portuguese youth teams is long. Cícero from Paços de Ferreira and Ivanildo from Académica have already played for Djurtus, but other names such as Stuttgart’s Carlos Mané and Edgar Ié (both were at the Olympic Games in Rio), Bruma or Romário Baldé , who plays in the Portuguese Premier League, may in the future make the Djurtus even stronger. The Guinean surprise is, in fact, no surprise at all.
Luís Cristóvão is a Portuguese freelance journalist, with collaborations with Eurosport, Radio Golo FM (Portugal) and Cadena Ser (Spain). He has followed African football since the 1990s.
Follow him on twitter @luis_cristovao