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Guinea-Bissau's Historic Road to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

In every major football tournament, one nation embarks on a journey many people often remark as a surprise. Sometimes these nations originate from well-established regions. One of those nations is in West Africa, where Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana are often the elite nations. Over recent years, that list also included Burkina Faso, Togo, and Cape Verde Islands.

Before 2016, Guinea-Bissau languished in the wilderness and struggled for respect in a country with few resources; at other times, events prohibited Guinea-Bissau from qualifying. Like Ghana, Guinea-Bissau has a black star on its flag. In 2016, not one, but two stars, emerged from Guinea-Bissau. What seemed like a lost campaign turned out to be one of the major stories in 2016 as Guinea-Bissau qualified for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

While its three wins in as many qualifiers between March and June ignited a nation's footballing history, Guinea-Bissau endured a much steep road that included periods of inactivity throughout the late 1990s and 2000s.

Guinea-Bissau player (red) celebrates during a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Zambia in Bissau on June 4, 2016. This victory, coupled with another result, secured a spot at the 2017 African Cup of Nations.

Guinea-Bissau player (red) celebrates during a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Zambia in Bissau on June 4, 2016. This victory, coupled with another result, secured a spot at the 2017 African Cup of Nations.

The Long Wait and the Early Beginnings

Originally called Portuguese Guinea, Guinea-Bissau played its first international match on June 2, 1952. Although the game came before the Africa Cup of Nations existed, Guinea-Bissau waited four decades to play its first Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. The 35-year wait remains the longest any African nation played its first qualifier. Before that, the nation's most notable achievement came in 1983, when Guinea-Bissau lost to Senegal in the Amilcar Cabral Cup Final in Mauritania.

Though it advanced via a playoff against Cape Verde Islands, Guinea-Bissau was outclassed in its first round-robin phase. Six matches resulted in six losses as Guinea-Bissau scored twice while allowing 18 goals. Four years after making its qualifying debut at the Africa Cup of Nations, Guinea-Bissau embarked on its first qualification phase for the FIFA World Cup.

On June 1, 1996, Guinea-Bissau went up 2-0, courtesy of both goals from Tavares Pereira. Guinea responded with two quick goals of their own in the second half. Aboubakar Sidik Camara, commonly known as "Titi," notched his goals within minutes from each other. In Guinea-Bissau, the task seemed more arduous following Pereira's straight red card in the 65th minute. However, Cipriano Co put Guinea-Bissau up, and the nation held on to a famous victory. Guinea-Bissau had a legitimate chance of reaching the second phase of qualifying. However, two quick goals broke a 1-1 draw, and Guinea could not find a second road goal to force extra time. In the end, Guinea-Bissau lost 3-1.

The 3-2 victory remained Guinea-Bissau's only World Cup qualifying victory until Sept. 4, 2019.

Estadio Nacional 24 de Setembro is the home stadium of Guinea-Bissau's football team. The stadium is named in honor of the date Guinea-Bissau gained its independence from Portugal.

Estadio Nacional 24 de Setembro is the home stadium of Guinea-Bissau's football team. The stadium is named in honor of the date Guinea-Bissau gained its independence from Portugal.

Sinking into Dormancy and Irrelevancy

Guinea-Bissau's two games in June 1996 were the nation's only games that year. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) barred Guinea-Bissau from qualifying for the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations due to having withdrawn from qualifying for the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. After its first World Cup qualifiers in 1996, Guinea-Bissau did not play another match until Nov. 29, 1997.

After that game years, Guinea-Bissau played only 20 matches, with some years featuring no matches (1998, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2009). Guinea-Bissau played a pair of games against Mali, which happened during the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. To date, Guinea-Bissau's lone victory against Mali came on Feb. 23, 1984. Four years after its World Cup qualifiers against Mali, Guinea-Bissau hoped to defeat Sierra Leone for the first time. However, despite having the second leg at home, Guinea-Bissau failed to overturn the 1-0 loss from the first leg and was out of the World Cup again.

Most of the matches that Guinea-Bissau did play either involved World Cup qualifiers or regional games. Still, Guinea-Bissau could not qualify for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations due to unpaid debits the nation owed to Africa's governing body.

"It was an important win. A win that gives us better conditions to build for the future that will make people believe that we have good players, players who, within the context of Africa, can really play an important part in each match they play."

— Norton De Matos, following Guinea-Bissau's 1-0 victory over Kenya in September 2010.

Breaking Ground and Near Misses

In 2010, Guinea-Bissau returned to an Africa Cup of Nations qualification phase after not playing a game in over two years. The absence saw the nation ranked 188th n the world on Aug. 11, 2010, making Guinea-Bissau the fourth-lowest ranked African country during the qualification phase.

It did not matter ahead of Guinea-Bissau's opening game against Kenya; its opponents ranked 72 places ahead. The 1-0 upset had many ramifications. For Kenya, manager Twahir Muhuddin lost his job. For Guinea-Bissau, it was the nation's first significant victory since defeating Guinea in 1996. Though that opening match was the only game the country w, Guinea-Bissau did not make things more comfortable in a group that featured Angola and Uganda.

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A year after the victory against Kenya, Guinea-Bissau almost pulled off another result, only for Kenya to score late to hand Guinea-Bissau a 2-1 defeat. The 1-0 victory also marked the first international cap for Guinea-Bissau's recent pioneers - Jose Luis Mendes Lopes, commonly known as Zezinho, who had yet to turn 18 before the match.

In 2012, Guinea-Bissau had an opportunity to encounter one of Africa's elite nations - Cameroon, who was in turmoil after missing out on the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. The chaos stemmed from a player's strike over unpaid bonuses, including a notable player. On Dec. 16, 2011, Cameroon's governing body suspended Samuel Eto'o for 15 matches, including the two games against Guinea-Bissau.
Guinea-Bissau kept Cameroon scoreless for nearly three hours over the two games.

Though the nation lost both games 1-0, Guinea-Bissau made Cameroon earn those victories. On Feb. 29, 2012, Eric Choupo-Moting broke a scoreless draw in stoppage time to deny Guinea-Bissau a crucial result. In the second leg on June 16, Benjamin Moukandjo broke a scoreless draw in the 80th minute to give Cameroon a vital goal to deny Guniea-Bissau again.

In 2014, Guinea-Bissau attempted to qualify for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, beginning with a home-and-home against the Central African Republic. The second leg proved vital as Cecero Semedo scored twice in the second leg as Guinea-Bissau advanced 3-1 on aggregate. However, Botswana eliminated Guinea-Bissau in the next round 3-1 on aggregate.

So Much Can Happen

On Apr. 8, 2015, Guinea-Bissau was in Pot 4 ahead of the draw for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualification phase; the nation would face Zambia, Congo, and Kenya. Some experts had Guinea-Bissau at only one percent to advance to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Guinea-Bissau had its toughest test in its first qualifier - an away match in Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola on June 13, 2015. When the game finished, Guinea-Bissau pulled off an impressive scoreless draw. Guinea-Bissau hoped to gain confidence ahead of a home qualifier against Congo. Instead, Guinea-Bissau allowed Férébory Doré to score all his team's goals as Congo won 4-2 in Bissau.

A month after allowing Doré to score four goals in one match, Guinea-Bissau allowed another four-goal performance. Liberia's William Jebor notched all four of Liberia's goals within six days to confirm Guinea-Bissau's elimination from the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Jebor's hat-trick included two goals in the opening 12 minutes of the second leg in Bissau, which finished 3-1.

That manager of those qualifiers, plus the previous two Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, was Paulo Torres. On Sept. 30, 2015, the CAF suspended Torres from managing the nation. This decision was because of the coach's destructive behavior toward a referee during the match in Zambia. Following the 3-1 defeat to Liberia, Guinea-Bissau fired Torres.

In 2016, Baciro Cande returned to become the manager of Guinea-Bissau, following Torres's firing. During Cande's first stint, Guinea-Bissau rarely played matches between 2001 and 2009. In March 2016, Guinea-Bissau encountered Kenya in five days, with new stars and Guinea-Bissau getting favorable results.

The Crucial Result in Nairobi

Even against Zambia, we went in with the same determination as we had against Kenya. We did not even consider drawing, we only wanted to win, by any means. It was the first opportunity in our history to qualify for AFCON, so we knew we could not miss it.

— Bissau-Guinean player Bocundji Ca, reflecting on Guinea-Bissau's 3-2 victory over Zambia

Three Victories, Plus One off the Field

Guinea-Bissau hosted Kenya on Mar. 23, 2016, in what became a must-win situation. An emerging star in Italy's Serie D for SSD Correggessse, Idrissa Camara scored his first-ever goal for Guinea-Bissau in the 18th minute. The goal proved vital and happened to be the match's only goal. Five days later, on Mar. 27, 2016, the same 1-0 scoreline occurred in Nairobi.

Cicero played his club football for Şanlıurfaspor in Turkey's second division and scored the lone goal off a corner kick. The goal upset Kenyan fans that police quelled crowd disturbances after fans set off fireworks. A 30-minute delay followed, but once again, the goal proved vital. Just as crucial as Guinea-Bissau's two successive 1-0 victory, the two consecutive 1-1 draws Congo and Zambia played out.

On the day Guinea-Bissau won in Bissau, Jordan Massengo's 75th-minute goal for Congo canceled out Winston Kalego's goal for hosts Zambia in the 60th minute.

On the day Guinea-Bissau won in Nairobi, Kalego's 72nd-minute goal for Zambia canceled out Massengo's goal for host Congo in the 47th minute.

These results meant Guinea-Bissau could qualify for the tournament, and the first objective came on June 4, 2016. It was a game where three players received their maiden caps for Guinea-Bissau. The nation led early courtesy of a Zezinho penalty kick, only for Collins Mbseuma to score his 20th career goal for Zambia. Recently having joined South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai, Frederic Mendy gained his first cap in this match and scored a goal in the 36th minute, putting Guinea-Bissau in the driver's seat for a possible berth.

The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations champions Zambia would not abandon quickly, and Christopher Katongo scored his 22nd goal for Zambia. That result could have meant that it would be necessary for its final qualifier in Congo. Cue in Toni Silva, a Bissau-Guinean-born player who represented Portugal at the youth levels. Thanks to costly Zambian defending, Silva's stoppage-time goal gave the hosts the needed result. A day after Guinea-Bissau won 3-2 against Zambia, Kenya overturned an early deficit to defeat Congo 2-1.

With those results, Guinea-Bissau qualified for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. One of football's most unlikely surprises seemed to be ready for its first continental final. However, despite the victory, Guinea-Bissau had to overcome another obstacle with Zambia. A week after the 3-2 loss, Zambia lodged a formal complaint regarding the eligibility of goalkeeper Papa Massa Mbaye Fall, who debuted for Guinea-Bissau as a replacement for the suspended Jonas Mendes. Zambia's footballing body alleged that the Dakar-born Fall had played for Senegal earlier and would mean that Fall cannot represent Guinea-Bissau.

The CAF ruled that Fall never registered to play for Senegal. Furthermore, Guinea-Bissau provided additional documents, including a "residential certificate stating that the player has lived in Guinea Bissau since Apr. 23 2009." Also, one of Fall's grandmothers, Ngone Kane Diouf, was born in Guinea-Bissau, thus confirming Fall's eligibility. After a long wait, Guinea-Bissau would play at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

Guinea-Bissau players celebrate during the opening game of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Libreville, Gabon on Jan. 14, 2017.. Juary Soares scored one minute into stoppage time as Guinea-Bissau earned a shocking 1-1 draw.

Guinea-Bissau players celebrate during the opening game of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Libreville, Gabon on Jan. 14, 2017.. Juary Soares scored one minute into stoppage time as Guinea-Bissau earned a shocking 1-1 draw.

A Historic Victory in Bissau

The Tournament Proper and Lessons Learned

Many thought Guinea-Bissau would be pushovers in its first tournament, and one source even touted that Guinea-Bissau had a 27 percent chance to advance out of the group stage. In a group that featured Gabon, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau more than held their own, albeit finishing last in its group.

The nation had a memorable debut against the host nation Gabon to kick off the 2017 edition. Zezinho earned the tournament's first man of the match, but Juary Soares provided the historic goal late in stoppage time, canceling out Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng's opening goal in the 1-1 draw. Four days later, Piqueti Silva topped one better with one of the tournament's highlights - a 13th-minute goal that gave Guinea-Bissau a shock lead against eventual champions Cameroon.

An eventual member of the 2017 Team of the Tournament, defender Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui scored his first-ever goal for Cameroon to break a 1-1 draw. Guinea-Bissau had its works cut out heading into the final match against Burkina Faso. However, an early own goal from Rudinilson Silva made advancing out of the group stage all but impossible. Another eventual member of the Team of the Tournament, Bertrand Traore, sealed Burkina Faso's progression and eventual run to a third-place finish.

Despite the early exit, Guinea-Bissau proved its qualification to the tournament was no accident. What Cande injected for an up-and-coming nation would be something few thought possible.

The march to Gabon ignited the birth of Guinea-Bissau's golden generation. The manager had sown the seeds in a west African nation where the fairytale was beginning.

Guinea-Bissau's Road to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations

Guinea-Bissau qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations on June 5, 2016, after Kenya's 2-1 victory over Congo.


June 13, 2015

Zambia (A)


Ndola: Levy Mwanawasa Stadium

Sept. 5, 2015

Congo (H)

4-2 Congo

Bissau: Estádio Nacional 24 de Setembro

Mar. 23, 2016

Kenya (H)

1-0 Guinea-Bissau

Bissau: Estádio Nacional 24 de Setembro

Mar. 27, 2016

Kenya (A)

1-0 Guinea-Bissau

Nairobi: Nyayo National Stadium,

June 4, 2016

Zambia (H)

3-2 Guinea-Bissau

Bissau: Estádio Nacional 24 de Setembro

Sept. 4, 2016

Congo (A)

1-0 Congo

Brazzaville: Stade Municipal de Kintélé

Jan. 14, 2017

Gabon (A)


Libreville: Stade de l'Amitié

Jan. 18, 2017

Cameroon (N)

2-1 Cameroon

Libreville: Stade de l'Amitié

Jan. 22, 2017

Burkina Faso (N)

2-0 Burkina Faso

Franceville: Stade de Franceville

We are very, very happy. Now we have the motivation to go as far as possible.

— Baciro Candé, Guinea-Bissau's manager after the team recorded a 1-1 draw with Gabon on Jan. 14, 2017

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© 2019 Antonio Martinez

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