For the first time in 36 years, there was no African nation in the last 16 of the World Cup. It was a shock, perhaps, with star names such as John Obi Mikel, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané failing to carry their nations through the group stage. At this point, Pelé’s vision of an African team winning the World Cup has not aged well, with these failings arguably a step backwards for football across the entire continent.
It is a stark contrast to the past few tournaments, where African sides have been amongst the feel-good stories. Algeria gave eventual winners Germany a scare in 2014, Siphiwe Tshabalala’s opener for South Africa in 2010 is one of the iconic World Cup goals, and in both that tournament and four years earlier, Ghana impressed. The 2006 World Cup was their first participation in the finals, although there are two other African nations from that tournament whose stories are largely forgotten: namely the journeys of Angola and Togo.
As unlikely qualifiers go, both these nations are right up there. Togo is a small strip of land situated on the west coast of Africa nestled between Benin, Burkina Faso and Ghana, while Angola is a wartorn nation situated in the south-east of the continent. Neither country has ever been regarded as a footballing powerhouse, even within Africa, as prior to qualification both sides had failed to make it past the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations in nine attempts.
Both nations have enjoyed troubled existences, characterised by authoritarian regimes and violence. Togo gained independence from France in 1960, being ruled from 1967 onwards by Gnassingbé Eyadéma, a brutal dictator notable for his bizarre cult of personality, with such incidents as falsely claiming he was the sole survivor of a plane crash in order to appear superhuman.
Angola, meanwhile, came into existence in 1975 after the Carnation Revolution in governing Portugal that saw the new leftist government release all colonies. Angola had been locked in an independence conflict since 1961, although struggled with a lack of unity amongst the rival factions. What followed was a civil war lasting over 26 years, with the competing ideologies making the conflict become a lesser-told part of the Cold War.
These signs of struggle extended onto the football pitch, with neither side having ever come close to World Cup qualification prior to 2006. After the first leg of the prelims, it appeared this trait would continue. Both sides started in October 2003 with away defeats, namely 3-1 to Chad and 1-0 in Equatorial Guinea. In the home legs these deficits were overturned, although Angola only managed to scrape through on away goals.
The nations were then handed tough qualifying groups, with Togo drawn alongside Congo, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Zambia, while Angola were placed in Group 4 with Algeria, Gabon, Rwanda, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. The only player of note in either side was Emmanuel Adebayor, with Togo having a squad spread out in the lower leagues of France, Italy and Switzerland. Angola’s team were mostly domestic-based with several more in Portugal.
For the previous qualifying campaign in 2002, both sides were drawn in the same group, but were overrun by the class of Cameroon. Angola did manage a 2-0 home win, although this proved irrelevant as they ended six points behind the Indomitable Lions. Expectations were low and failed to be abated after the opening round of matches, Angola drawing 0-0 with Algeria and Togo losing 1-0 in Zambia.
The second game, however, brought shocks for both sides, who stunned the group favourites in catalytic wins that ensured 20 June 2004 would go down as a historic date in their journeys to Germany. Angola won 1-0 against Nigeria courtesy of a late strike from Akwá, while an early Adebayor goal and brace from Junior Sènaya were enough for Togo to earn a 3-1 victory over the Senegal.
Angola sought to maintain this momentum, drawing 2-2 in Gabon before 1-0 home wins over Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Togo also continued on the right path – a disappointing 0-0 draw with Liberia aside – registering 2-0 and 1-0 wins in Lomé over Congo and Mali respectively. This was the last match for the nation under leader Eyadéma, with his death in February 2005 sparking a military coup before his son Faure was installed as leader in late April via some suspicious elections. By this stage, Togo had secured another key victory, securing the three points in injury time in Bamako against a good Mali side.
Angola had difficulties of their own in March, registering what would prove their sole defeat in Zimbabwe. They responded in June, however, coming from behind to beat Algeria 2-1 before a second-half equaliser from Figueiredo cancelled out an early strike from Jay-Jay Okocha to earn a point in Nigeria.
Togo also managed to record a draw away to the early group favourites in a match that finished 2-2 in Dakar thanks to a late goal from Adebayor. The motivation garnered from this would serve to set Togo on their way to Germany, with the Sparrow Hawks scoring three in both remaining games to top the group with 23 points, two more than Senegal.
Angola, however, had a nervier finale, with a 4-0 thrashing of Gabon putting them level on points with Nigeria going into the final match and only ahead on head-to-head record. As the Super Eagles eased past Zimbabwe, Angola struggled with the occasion against Rwanda, the hosts playing with no fear and even hitting the crossbar early in the second half. It was fitting that inspirational captain Akwá, the scorer of half their goals in qualifying, was to be the man to head home the decisive goal in the 79th minute.
In between the end of qualification and the finals itself came the Africa Cup of Nations in January 2006. Paired together with Cameroon and DR Congo in Group B, it was to be Angola who triumphed as they ran out 3-2 winners over Togo thanks to a late winner from Maurito. Unfortunately, neither side progressed, with the West Africans descending into chaos following the tournament.
Inadequate training plans on behalf of the Togolese Football Federation were seen as a major factor behind the disaster in Egypt, with a high-profile bust-up occurring between Adebayor and coach Stephen Keshi after the opening defeat to DR Congo. Several teammates, too, had issues with the striker, who they felt had lost his humility since joining Arsenal in January 2006.
Following the tournament, Keshi paid for the poor performances with his job, sacked in February 2006 just a week before being named African Coach of the Year. So shocked were the players at the decision that several flew back from Europe mid-season to meet with the FTF and attempt to get the Nigerian reinstated.
Keshi had been instrumental in Togo’s run, fostering a real sense of camaraderie and togetherness amongst his players. His importance could be seen through defender Eric Akoto, who summed up the mood in the camp following his sacking: “Most of us still haven’t accepted the new coach and would like Keshi to be in charge.”
The FTF’s lack of organisation continued, failing to arrange a friendly in March during what was the last FIFA window before the end of the European season. Only two preparatory matches were eventually organised prior to flying to Germany, against Saudi Arabia and European minnows Liechtenstein, who were ranked 123rd in the world and only narrowly beaten 1-0.
Going into the tournament Akoto stated how morale in the camp was low with the lack of playing time for the majority of the squad at club level meaning a further drop in fitness. There were also destructive rumours that the FTF had only appointed the German Otto Pfister as Keshi’s replacement to please shirt suppliers Puma.
Angola, meanwhile, were on a much more even keel, with manager Luís Oliveria Gonçalves remaining in place of the side he referred to as “my boys”. Again fostering tremendous team spirit and boasting a well-organised side, Angola prepared in more appropriate fashion with competitive results in friendlies against South Korea, Argentina and Turkey.
In circumstances you couldn’t make up, both sides were paired in groups with their former colonial masters. In addition to Portugal, Angola found themselves with Iran and Mexico in Group D, while Togo’s Group H contained France, South Korea and Switzerland. Neither side was expected to progress, although on paper things appeared far harder for Togo, with their off-field issues showing no signs of ending.
Three days prior to their opening match with South Korea, Pfister resigned as coach, citing unpaid bonuses and how he refused to be “messed around any longer” by the FTF. An intervention was required from Prime Minister Edem Kodjo, who flew into Germany to reason with him. In the end, the South Korea match did go ahead, although Mohamed Kader’s fine first-half strike was overturned as the 10 men of Togo conceded twice in the second half in Frankfurt.
Two days prior to this, Angola had kicked off their World Cup adventure, faring far better as they ran Portugal close in a 1-0 loss. Despite Pauleta opening the scoring on five minutes and Cristiano Ronaldo striking the bar, the Palancas Negras had several chances of their own. Their surprise factor continued into the next match with Mexico, where despite playing the final 10 minutes with 10 men, the Angolans rode their luck to hang on for a historic 0-0 draw.
In complete contrast, the Togolese meltdown continued, with the entire squad threatening to go on strike prior to their game against Switzerland. They only relented after FIFA officials went to their base in the south of Germany to warn of serious repercussions, eventually issuing a fine of 100,000 Swiss Francs for “behaviour unworthy of participation in a tournament”.
The match was a more positive showing from Togo, who, despite conceding to Alexander Frei early on, looked dangerous on the break. They should arguably have had a penalty in the first half after a foul on Adebayor by Patrick Müller, and only conceded a second when going in desperate search of an equaliser three minutes from time.
With Togo out, Angola had a mathematical chance of progression going into the final round of games. With news of Portugal being 2-1 up against Mexico filtering through to Gelsenkirchen, Angola’s fans spurred on their side, who needed to win by two goals against Iran. The Sable Antelopes took the lead on the hour mark through Flavio, although Sohrab Bakhtiarizadeh headed home in the 79th minute to break Angolan hearts. Regardless, they had secured the second point that ensured a third-place finish.
Togo, meanwhile, lost their final group match against France 2-0, exiting the tournament bottom of their group and pointless. On reflection, these outcomes are nothing less than expected, particularly for the Togolese whose off-field issues meant their tournament was over before it even began. In the aftermath of Germany 2006, neither nation has come close to reaching another finals, with both sides failing to make the final round of qualifying for 2010.
It was to be at that year’s Africa Cup of Nations, however, where this story would reach a traumatic end. With Angola hosting the tournament for the first time in their history, Togo were travelling through the enclave of Cabinda province when tragedy struck. A group of gunmen from a separatist group ambushed the team bus, killing the driver and forcing players to hide under their seats for the duration of the half hour attack.
It was a sad final chapter in the fairy tale journey embarked upon by two great eras of national talent, who shocked the footballing world by reaching the World Cup. While an African side may appear further away than ever from Pelé’s famous prediction, in 2006 just being there was enough for Angola and Togo.
By James Kelly @jkell403