When the news broke in January 2016 that former Everton and Liverpool defender Abel Xavier had been announced as the new manager of the Mozambique national team, many football fans smiled at a left field move by one of football’s most striking characters.
Xavier is often remembered for his alternative style off the field as much as his contribution on it, in a career that saw him turn out for 12 different clubs across the world. However, beneath the outrageous peroxide blonde beard and frequently changing haircuts there always existed a fierce competitor often relying on his aggression and height to exert his influence on opponents.
He arrived at Goodison Park in September 1999 having already enjoyed a nomadic career across Europe, playing top flight football in Portugal, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. After two and half seasons at Everton, Xavier was restless again and he made the bold move to cross Stanley Park to Anfield in 2002.
The Portuguese international was part of the Reds team that finished second in the Premier League in 2001-02, but after a fallout with boss Gérard Houllier early in the next season his time on Merseyside was up and he moved on. Despite such a contentious move from the blue to the red half of the city, it is a real sign of the character of Xavier that he is still remembered with fondness by a fair few Evertonians.
His most career defining moment also came during his time with Everton, on international duty with Portugal at Euro 2000. After enjoying a fine run of form with the national side at the time, Xavier committed a desperate handball in an attempt to prevent a goal against France in the tournament semi-finals. Zinedine Zidane converted the resulting penalty to eliminate Portugal. Xavier was red carded for the incident, and incensed by the decision he aggressively berated the referee, earning himself nine-month FIFA ban.
Sadly for Xavier, those images of him chasing referee Günter Benkö lingered in the memory for many football fans and his image was significantly tarnished, and events at Liverpool did little to improve his reputation.
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However his time away from the glare of mainstream European football, including a brief sojourn at LA Galaxy for a year between 2007 and 2008, seems to have allowed him to refocus. His first forays into football management, to borrow an old cliché, have seem him serve his apprenticeship with lesser lights within the Portuguese league at Olhanese, and Segunda teams Farense and C.D. Aves.
Despite a mixed bag of achievements at these clubs, the Mozambique FA opted for Xavier in January following the exit of Croatian Boris Pušić. And full credit needs to go to Xavier for improving the African side’s fortunes in hasty fashion, following a disastrous results record within Africa.
Xavier, a Mozambique native who moved to Portugal as a child, immediately took on the unenviable task of resurrecting their 2017 African Cup of Nations qualification campaign following two straight defeats. His first game in charge was a 3-1 defeat to Ghana, with the Black Stars able to call upon English-based players including Jordan Ayew, Christian Atsu and Leicester City pair Jeff Schlupp and Daniel Amartey. However, in the return three fixture days later in Accra, Xavier’s team secured a creditable 0-0 draw, before beating Rwanda 3-2 in June, their first away win in almost a year.
Despite an unsuccessful run in the COSFA Cup this summer, Mozambique returned to winning ways in September, beating Mauritius 1-0 and securing impressive back-to-back African Cup of Nations qualifying victories. Ultimately it was to prove a case of too little too late for the 2017 tournament as their poor start was Mozambique’s eventual undoing, despite them securing second place in the group behind Ghana.
Following the upturn in form and a significant improvement in results, there is a renewed feeling within the Mozambique FA and fans that they can make a real push to qualify for the 2019 tournament, as World Cup qualification remains a somewhat unrealistic possibility currently.
There has also been a development of young talent by Xavier, with Benfica B defender Reinildo and Panetolikos forward Clesio Bauque playing prominent roles under the former Portugal international. Alongside these emerging players, there is a rejuvenated established core of Levante midfielder Simão, captain Domingues and strike pair Hélder Pelembe and Apson Manjate, who are both enjoying their best goalscoring spell under Xavier.
Memorable for a variety of reasons during his playing career, Xavier is slowly developing a reputation as manager of talent, making headway with a nation that is notorious for sacking managers while allowing his players to dream big. They are creating a new period of success for the East African country.
By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren