Angola goes from sacrificial lamb to potential spoiler

Updated: August 25, 2006, 10:10 AM ET
Reuters

SAITAMA, Japan -- Angola first appeared on the international basketball map at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, served up as the Dream Team's first offering.

Considered the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and company showed the debutants from Africa no mercy, handing Angola one of the worst thrashings in Olympic basketball history in a 116-48 demolition.

Now, 14 years later, the U.S. -- or any other team competing at the FIBA World Basketball Championship -- are not so eager to take on Angola.

No longer basketball's weakling, Angola has grown into a muscular medal contender advancing to the knockout phase after opening the preliminary round with three impressive wins, then pushing Spain and Germany to the limit in its final two group contests.

"Today we showed the whole world we have a lot to offer," said Joaquim Gomes after Angola took Germany to the first triple overtime in championship history before falling 108-103. "We gave the effort, we showed the heart, we just came up short in the end."

With the exception of Gomes, who spent four years on a basketball scholarship at an American college and played last year with the Eiffel Towers in the Netherlands, the Angolan squad is made up entirely of players taken from the country's 10-team domestic league.

What the Angolans lack in talent, they make up in effort and teamwork, playing over 50 games together during the build-up to the championships.

"We play like a family," said Gomes. "We try to put everything together to make one piece.

"Every time we win the country goes crazy. It's crazy how much they're into it.

"Every time we win we make someone happy. I feel like I'm doing something good for the country."

As Angola emerged from a bloody 27-year civil war, the basketball team provided the war-weary country with some of the few reasons to smile.

The 'Palancas Negras' (Black Jerseys) have won eight African Championships since 1989, including the last four and played in every Olympics since Barcelona.

"Because of the war, my country was blocked and the only issue we got to show something about Angola was sport," Gustavo Dias Vaz Da Conceicao, president of the Angola Basketball Federation and International Olympic Committee member told Reuters.

"Soccer is bigger than basketball but basketball shows better results. Angola was for the first time in the World Cup [finals in Germany] and we are here for the fifth world championships.

"Soccer participates three times in Africa championship - we are African champions eight times."

Despite their strong play, Angola will again be underdogs when it takes on France in the round of 16 on Sunday.

But Gomes sees no reason why the team's run should end there and Angola can't return home with a medal.

"If you get this far, why not?," smiled Gomes. "Where there is life there is hope."