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

Updated on November 3, 2019
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

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

In every major football tournament, one nation embarks on a journey many people often remark as a surprise. Sometimes these surprise nations originate from well-established regions One of those nations is located in West Africa, where Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana are often the elite nations from this region. 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 participating in qualifying. But just 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 difficult road that included periods of inactivity throughout the late 1990s and 2000s.

Guinea-Bissau player (red) celebrate during a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Zambia in Bissau on June 4, 2016.
Guinea-Bissau player (red) celebrate during a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Zambia in Bissau on June 4, 2016. | Source

The Long Wait and the Early Beginnings

It was called Portuguese Guinea when Guinea-Bissau played its first international match on June 2, 1952. Although the match 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 maiden qualifier. Before that, the nation's most notable achievement came in 1983, wen Guinea-Bissau lost to Senegal in the Amilcar Cabral Cup Final that took place in Mauritania.

Though it advanced via a playoff against Cape Verde Islands, Guinea-Bissau found itself 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 surprised many people when it went up 2-0 after Tavares Pereira scored twice. 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. The task seemed tougher Guinea-Bissau 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 was unable to 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. | Source

Sinking into Dormancy and Irrelevancy

Guinea-Bissau's two games in June 1996 happened to be the only games the nation played 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.

Between that date and Dec. 7, 2007, Guinea-Bissau played only 20 matches altogether. During this period, Guinea-Bissau played a pair of games against Mali, but these were not merely the same meetings held during the Amilcar Cabral Cup. Instead, Guinea-Bissau lost both matches to Mali in the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. To date, Guinea-Bissau 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. The nation did not even play a single game in 1998, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009. During that period, Guinea-Bissau could not participate in qualification 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 was back in a qualifying phase for the Africa Cup of Nations after not having played in over two years. As a result, the nation was ranked 188th in 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 important victory since defeating Guinea back in 1996. Though that opening match was the only game the country received points, Guinea-Bissau did not make things more comfortable in a group that featured Angola and Uganda. 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 one of 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 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, which would include 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, Especially a Managerial Return

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.

That second leg finished 3-1; the 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 due to destructive behavior that the coach inflicted on a referee during the match in Zambia. Following the 3-1 defeat to Liberia, Guinea-Bissau fired Torres, and a former manager returned to Guinea-Bissau.

In 2016, Baciro Cande returned to become the manager of Guinea-Bissau, following some manager's firing. During his first stint, Cande and Guinea-Bissau rarely played matches between 2001 and 2009, let alone play two games within a week during qualifying. But 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 back 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 if Guinea-Bissau were to contend for a berth. An emerging star in 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 only goal of the match. Five days later on Mar. 27, 2016, and the same 1-0 scoreline occurred. A member of Şanlıurfaspor in Turkey's second division, Cicero scored the lone goal in the 81st minute off a corner kick. The goal upset Kenyan fans so much that police had to stifle crowd disturbances after fans set off fireworks following the goal. A 30minute delay followed, but ultimately, the goal also proved to be the difference.

Just as important as Guinea-Bissau's two successive 1-0 victory were the other results from the group as Congo and Zambia played out to consecutive 1-1 draws. On the day Guinea-Bissau won its home game, Winston Kalego opened the scoring for hosts Zambia in the 60th minute. Jordan Massengo canceled out Kalego's goal 15 minutes later. On the day Guinea-Bissau won away in Nairobi, Massengo opened the scoring for hosts Congo in the 47th minute, only for Kalego to cancel out Massengo's goal.

Now, Guinea-Bissau could qualify for the tournament in June 2016. The first part came on June 4, 2016, in a game where three key players received their maiden caps for Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau had taken an early lead thanks to a Zezinho penalty kick, only for Collins Mbseuma to score his 20th career goal for Zambia. Having joined South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai, Frederic Mendy gained his first cap in this match. Mendy scored his initial goal in the 36th minute, putting Guinea-Bissau in the driver's seat.

But Zambia would not abandon definitely; they were the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations champions. The captain of that squad, Christopher Katongo scored his 22nd goal for Zambia. A chance at direct qualification would require a result in its final qualifier in Congo. Cue in Toni Silva, a Bissau-Guinean born player who played for Portugal in the youth levels. Thanks to costly Zambian defending, Silva scored in the 90th minute. The 3-2 result gave Guinea-Bissau the result it needed. On the following day, Kenya overturned an early deficit to defeat Congo 2-1.

Guinea-Bissau, having come out of Pot 4 ahead of the draw, qualified for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. It stands as one of the biggest surprises in any continental football. However, despite having defeated Zambia on the field, Guinea-Bissau still had to overcome one more obstacle with Zambia...this time off the field.
A week after the 3-2 loss, Zambia lodged a formal complaint regarding the eligibility of another player who debuted in that qualifier: goalkeeper Papa Massa Mbaye Fall, who started for the suspended Jonas Mendes. Fall was born in Dakar, Senegal, which meant he would have been eligible to play for Senegal. Zambia's footballing body claimed that Fall played for Senegal earlier, meaning that he would not have been eligible to play for Guinea-Bissau.

However, on Aug. 22, 2016, the CAF ruled that Fall never registered to play for Senegal. Furthermore, Guinea-Bissau provided additional, including among others a "residential certificate stating that the player has lived in Guinea Bissau since 23 April 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 be finally making plans at last for Gabon as it qualified for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

2017 Africa Cup of Nations Qualification Group E

 
W
D
L
GF
GA
Guinea-Bissau
3
1
2
7
7
Congo
2
3
1
9
7
Zambia
1
4
1
7
7
Kenya
1
2
3
5
7
Guinea-Bissau qualified for the 2019 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. | Source

A Historic Victory in Bissau

Aftermath and the Encore

Many who thought Guinea-Bissau would be pushovers in its first were to be mistaken. One source 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. Still, Juary Soares provided a monumental goal in stoppage time - that coming at the opening game of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations against Gabon. Piqueti Silva topped one better with one of the goals of the tournament - a 13th-minute goal that gave Guinea-Bissau a shock lead over eventual champions Cameroon.

Most expected that Guinea-Bissau would struggle to reach the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, especially with Zambia in its group, along with Mozambique and Namibia. One of the goalscorers from the June 4, 2016 meeting, Mendy would score against Zambia as well, but his goals helped Guinea-Bissau salvage two critical draws against Mozambique.

The first goal came on Sept. 8, 2018; Mozambique scored two minutes into stoppage time for what seemed to be a victory. However, Mendy scored his goal eight minutes into stoppage time. Deja vu unfolded on Mar. 23, 2019: Mendy scored in the 90th minute after Mozambique had taken a 2-1 lead, a result that had it stood would have sent Mozambique through. Mendy's goal ended up sending Namibia, not Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations due to head-to-head tiebreakers. More deja vu unfolded with Guinea-Bissau's home match against Zambia - Silva, having scored the game-winner against the same opponents at home in June 2016, doing so again on Oct. 14, 2018.

For some nations, success takes time, and making a name is not easy, mainly if the country cannot produce homegrown talent. Guinea-Bissau utilized homegrown talent and emerged out of the shadows finally. Time will tell what Guinea-Bissau is all about.

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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