Ginga, Banga, and focus

How the Palancas Negras won the hearts of Angolan football fans.

Image courtesy Eurico Costa © 2024.

We honor the past and our History, As by our work we build the New Man.

– Angolan national anthem

Angolan football has seen almost everything within a 12-year span—from its first participation in AFCON amidst a civil war in 1996; to a generation of homegrown talent wining the country’s first piece of continental silverware in 2001 (in the then Africa Youth Championship); to a historical against-all-odds FIFA World Cup qualification and its first presence in AFCON Knockout Stages in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

However, to truly understand the importance of Friday’s 2023 AFCON quarterfinal clash against Nigeria, we need to go back to 2010, the year the tournament was hosted by Angola. Looking back at that time, the country had a vertiginous, fast-growing economy, and hosting the tournament seemed like an investment towards growing sports in the country. Before Angolans would come to realize that hosting an event of such importance is nothing more than a product of ill-intention and manipulative governance, they would go through the most traumatic series of results in Angolan football history.

Divorce—the legacy of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations

The night of January 10, 2010.

An unshakeable feeling of expectation, blended with the vibrancy and pride of a country celebrating peace and unity, provided every witness present at the opening match between Angola and Mali with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Though the Palancas Negras were coming off a historical 2008 campaign, to say they were candidates for the title would have been too flattering. By this time, many members of the 2006 and 2008 teams were disbanding or showing clear signs of decline. This was a factor clearly ignored by the Angolan FA as the legendary Oliveira Gonçalves was dismissed a year before the tournament and replaced by no less than Manuel José—four-time CAF Champions League title winner with Al-Ahly, and orchestrator of the biggest period of dominance in African football history. He was tasked with the impossible mission of rebuilding the Palancas Negras with less than 10 months to the start of the tournament.

Nonetheless, it all felt perfect that night, shaping up to be a historical result for the Palancas Negras deep into the final quarter (they were beating Mali 4–0), until they gave up control of the game entirely. They then conceded four goals, to the befuddlement of Manuel José, who, in an iconic flash interview after the match, admitted having never seen anything like it in his career. Despite making it past the group stages for the second consecutive time, and finishing at the top of a group with Mali, Algeria, and Malawi, it was difficult to recreate the same feeling of positivity towards a historical result at home. This was especially palpable after a soulless 0-0 draw with Algeria. The feeling of contempt over not losing was greater than the desire to win—a feeling that would remain dominant in future Palancas Negras ventures. Angola would later be knocked out of the tournament in the quarterfinals by Ghana, guaranteeing that the silence and boos heard after the equalizer scored by Mustapha Yatabaré, as well as in Asamoah Gyan’s winner, would echo for the entire decade.

Following that tournament came an unending period of poor governance and allocation of resources within the Angolan FA and Angolan football as a whole under Pedro Neto, who took up the presidency from Justino Fernandes in 2011. But Palancas Negras’ dramatic downfall would only truly begin after a heartbreaking defeat in the second edition of the African Nations Championship in 2011, where they fell hopelessly 3-0 to Tunisia in the final.

Then came two disappointing AFCON campaigns in 2012 and 2013 where the Palancas Negras did not advance beyond the group stages. The last campaign perhaps going down as the worst to date: 1 point from two losses (including one against fellow lusophone and debuting Cape Verde team), one draw, four goals conceded, and only one goal scored (an own-goal from a Cape Verde defender to give the Palancas a lead they would go on to lose in the 81st minute). This dramatic exit would be the final nail in the coffin for Angolan football fans, signaling a divorce that would last for the next 10 years.

Where half a seed grows a garden

The milieu of the overpopulated post-civil war capital of Luanda triggered the emergence of the 2006 FIFA World Cup golden generation. An abundance of talent was nurtured in the different clubs and academies across the city. Notwithstanding, the country would only see major investment in talent several years later with the inauguration of the Angolan Football Academy (AFA) and Primeiro de Agosto’s Academy in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Major investments in youth coaching were also made and the first results included the prodigal Ary Papel and Gelson Dala, who came through the ranks of Primeiro de Agosto, and the success of Pedro Gonçalves (former Scout and Coach at Sporting CP), who was responsible for recruiting Zito Luvumbo and Zini Salvador.

Simultaneously, many other smaller scale academies in Luanda were responsible for brewing the incredibly rich pool of talent, such as Real Sambila (responsible for Milson and Angola’s newest darling Gilberto’s early development), Guelson FC (responsible for Zito Luvumbo and Benfica B’s António Muanza’s first steps), and the ever-prestigious Atlético Petróleos de Luanda.

A problem with expression and memory

The civil war left a wide range of problems within Angolan society that are still felt to this day. One of the most glaring concerns freedom of expression. Trauma regarding this can be traced all the way back to the genocidal acts of May 27, 1977 when more than 50,000 people were killed or disappeared in a devastating wave of repression during an attempted coup d’etat against Agostinho Neto’s MPLA-led government.

The continuous overt and covert repression still haunts a population that has consistently found itself at its best through vibrant freedom of expression (as a means to forget its troubles). Young Angolans have consistently been the target of this oppression, such as the early attempts to silence the cultural impact of kuduro (a type of music and dance). Or, in footballing philosophy where, at the highest level, discipline was preferred over the free-flowing and expressive nature of the players. For a long time, it was thought of as rebellious to fully acknowledge the country’s cultural abundance of banga (Angolan slang for style; used to describe a stylish or exuberant manner of presenting oneself), or ginga (Angolan term for finesse; used to describe a swinging and controlled movement).

The unlikely renaissance

It would not be until 2018, under Srdjan Vasiljevic, that a more expansive brand of football would be put to the test, and Angola would consequentially find its best competitive results in almost eight years. It was a process that took them back to an Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt 2019. Doing the work to build an identity for the national teams of all levels, based on the previous successes under the technical direction of Miller Gomes, the blueprint was laid for Pedro Soares Gonçalves to succeed Vasiljevic. This would happen shortly after the historic success in the U-17 World Cup in Brazil—a team that featured Zini, Zito Luvumbo and Beni Mukendi, all players called up for the 2023 AFCON.

A team playing a characteristically Angolan style of play is now winning the hearts of football fans all over the continent. It is also rekindling its connection with its own nation, both through results and in the way those results are achieved. Now, a front three of homegrown talent channels Angola’s football heritage on the pitch—whether through Gelson Dala’s elegance in breaking down defenses on the left or through Gilberto’s electric dribbling style and overall kuduro-inspired aesthetic. This team is one that represents and inspires the average Angolan and its young majority, perhaps more than any other ever did, both on and off the pitch. The players dance kuduro over hotel couches and record themselves for the thousands of Angolans enamored with them on social media, walk into dressing rooms dancing and singing the country’s most viral and iconic hits, and then still walk on the pitch to deliver focused and tactically astute performances.

Staring into the abyss

When Pedro Gonçalves declared the desire “to do something that has never been done before,” Angolans had very little idea of what he truly had prepared for the tournament. As a result, each match has been a revelation, from the most optimistic of fans to the casual follower of the competition. Angolans always knew Mabululu was a great finisher, but never thought he’d have the audacity to try that curled shot for the Palancas’ third against Namibia. We always knew Gelson Dala was a special talent who could solve matches on his own, but we had never seen it happen at this level. We knew Fredy was a good attacking midfielder, but we never imagined him pulling strings and deciding a match. And, we always knew Gilberto represented the traditional Angolan winger in its most actualized form, but never imagined he would showcase it so brilliantly.

The Portuguese coach has perhaps planted a seed for what could well be a true embrace of Angolan originality in football. There has been what seems to be a major shift in mentality and group cohesion from what the Palancas Negras had after Oliveira Gonçalves’ dismissal. The hope that Angolans had lost in the national team and in the power of national pride is now glimmering again.

On Friday, February 2, the Palancas Negras will stand in front of what is and what could be. After putting Angolan football back where it belongs, it will look to put it where it has never been before, and with unprecedented courage materialize the image of an Angolan “New Man.”

Further Reading