Monday, May 08, 2006

#31: Palancas Negras


Where? Southwestern Africa, south and north of DR Congo, north of Namibia

How big? Pretty big, size wise. About twice the size of Texas. Population is about the size of Pennsylvania.

Tell me something about this country that I didn't know before I read the entry in the CIA factbook... Several interesting things for a country I didn't think would be interesting at all. History hasn't been kind to Angola. They became independent from Portugal in 1975, which led to a 27 year civil war (27 years!). That had a ridiculously deleterious effect on the population. Basically, two generations were totally wiped out. It had such an effect that today, 50% of the population is under the age of 18. 50%!!! When I first saw that number, I thought it surely had to do with the problem of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, but it really isn't. Angola's AIDS infection rate is "only" around 4%, significantly lower than all of it's southern neighbors (Botswana, which shares a border, has a rate over 37%!), and actually comparable to Trinidad & Tobago. It really was the war. Tragic.

Why should I care about this country, in the geopolitical sense? Well, let's go back to oil and natural resources again. The 27 year civil war and communism slowed development in Angola tremendously. But since 2002, things have settled down somewhat, and outside investment has made Angola sort of a promising place. Sort of (rebel insurgency, poverty still hurt). The economy has grown at a GDP growth rate around 20% (believe it!). The reason is oil. Believe it or not, Angola has larger proven reserves of oil than even the US. That's why China has invested billions, and others too.

OK, nerd. What's interesting about this country and don't mention economics, bitch! Well, there isn't much out there. One thing kind of funny was the story about Angola playing the USA in basketball in the '92 Olympics. It was in a prelim game and the original Dream Team pounded on Angola (USA won by 68 points). The memorable thing was Charles Barkley throwing a brutal elbow into the chest of yardstick skinny Herlander Coimbra, sending him to the ground. When asked about it, Barkley chimed in with a classic Barkleyism. "You hit me, I'll hit you... even if it looks like he hasn't eaten in a while." Then he joked about Coimbra throwing a spear at him.

This is a World Cup preview, right? Where's the soccer?

First, the history. Like T&T, this is Angola's first foray on the main stage. They've never really been close before either.

Qualification for Germany proved to be a pretty big surprise. After losing their opener preliminary to bottom feeder Chad, Angola sacked their coach and replaced him with their current manager. They won the return prelim and got to the group stage where they were drawn with Africa's best - Nigeria. But they play the games for a reason. Angola won every game at home (their stadium has a cool name - The Citadela), and drew with Nigeria in Kano. In fact, the head to head results stood up, since Nigeria and Angola ended up with the same record, and even though Nigeria probably should've advanced on goal differential.

The team has a veteran leader in Akwa, who plied his trade at Benfica for many years. A handful of other players have European professional experience. It's not a team loaded with major soccer performers, but the colonial tie with Portugal did leave an impression.

Akwa is the one to watch, because of his experience and his flair for the dramatic. His goal in Kigali to beat Rwanda in the finale of qualifying sent the Palancas Negras (Black Impalas) to Germany. Plus, he's a statesmanlike quote machine - sort of a Weah type.

So how are they going to do?

Not well, unfortunately. They're playing in a group without a true elite team, but with three pretty good teams. But this is the team that ousted Nigeria, so anything is possible.

In their opener, Angola face off against the colonial homeland (like T&T). Portugal, unlike in 2002, isn't going to let their opponent surprise them. I think Portugal comes up big and beats Angola 3-0.

I actually like Angola's chances a bit better in their second game, against Mexico. Mexico hasn't disappointed in group stages of a final in many years, but I think they're due for a slip year (the rest of the world has caught up in many ways). I think Angola scores, but can't hold off the Tricolores. 2-1 Mexico.

In their final game, I think Iran actually shows up big. It's a sad afternoon for Angola, as they lose the finale 2-0.

The Palancas Negras don't get a point, but that goal against Mexico keeps them from the bottom slot. A disappointing result, sure. Angola, however, has a brighter future. It's a young country, with resources allowing them to build infrastructure, and with the civil war behind them, it wouldn't surprise me to see Angola in future Cup finals.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Angola would be... that team from the SWAC, MEAC or Patriot league who won the tournament as a huge surprise, upsetting a dominant regular season champ. Nice story the week before the tournament, but it's a short stay in the actual tourney.

Angolans dive right in to the World Cup. Unfortunately, it's extremely shallow.