LIBREVILLE, Gabon, Jan 10 – Debutants Guinea-Bissau achieved one of the most remarkable qualifications in the 60-year-old Africa Cup of Nations by reaching the 2017 finals, and are plotting more shocks.
The Djurtus (wild dogs) topped a group, ahead of former champions Congo Brazzaville and Zambia and Kenya, that they were considered certainties to prop up.
Like Botswana, Cape Verde and Niger earlier this decade, Guinea-Bissau mocked the form book with a star-less team to clinch a first Cup of Nations appearance.
The unexpected success has propelled the tiny nation from FIFA rankings obscurity to 15th in Africa and 68th in the world. They rose 78 places last year — more than any other country.
Now they are plotting the downfall of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang-inspired hosts Gabon in Libreville this weekend in the African football showcase opener.
Four-time champions Cameroon and 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso complete Group A and the top two finishers after a single-round mini-league book quarter-finals slots.
Guinea-Bissau are the 150-1 title no-hopers among the quartet, according to international bookmakers, but 68-year-old coach Baciro Cande says he has more shocks in store.
“I want to make one thing very clear,” he stressed to AFP after a training session in the capital Bissau, “we are not going to Gabon for a holiday.
“My squad is composed of 23 proud professional footballers who are thinking only of bringing joy to the people of Guinea-Bissau.
“The best way to achieve that is by winning matches and qualifying for the quarter-finals in our Africa Cup debut.
“We eliminated former champions Congo and Zambia and can perform even better. The squad will work ceaselessly to achieve good results.”
National football federation president Manuel Lopes Nascimento is equally hopeful as Guinea-Bissau prepare for the greatest moment in their sporting history.
“It is wonderful to compete in the opening match and I am optimistic that we will beat Gabon. We are coming to play good football and put our country on the international football map,” he said.
Football success has brought a welcome change of image to a country ranked among the 10 poorest in the world by the United Nations.
Political turmoil is common and there have been numerous media reports of the country being a transit point for South American drugs en route to Europe.
A couple of wins over Kenya and a victory and a draw against Zambia secured qualification, with home and away losses to Congo not preventing them finishing top of the table by one point.
Before the 2017 qualifiers, the coastal former Portuguese colony of less than two million people had won just four of 22 matches in previous editions.
But Guinea-Bissau football reached dizzy heights never previously imagined during 24 hours last June, starting with a thrilling 3-2 triumph over Zambia at a packed Bissau stadium.
Toni Silva ran nearly half the length of the pitch to score the stoppage-time winner and Kenya upset Congo a day later to give the west Africans an unassailable lead with one round remaining.
The Guinea-Bissau squad consists of 22 footballers based in Europe, mainly with lower league clubs, while striker Frederic Mendy plays in South Korea.
Bocundji Ca, who has lined up for various French clubs, skippers the side and is likely to be busy in Gabon, given his defensive midfield role.