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Greater Goal: Healing a War-Torn Land

By Henning Mankell

The first time I visited Angola I was not aware that I was in that country. It was 1987 and I was living in the northwestern corner of Zambia, near the Angolan border. Narrow sand roads twisted through the endless bush. It was easy to get stuck while driving, and I often lost my bearings on my way to some distant village. When I'd stop to ask for directions, if the person I spoke to answered in Portuguese then it was imperative to get back to the right side of the invisible border quickly. Angola, so deeply wounded by its long colonial period, was throttled after liberation from Portugal by a violent civil war. The rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's warriors, infamous for indiscriminate violence, were everywhere. A generation of Angolans did not know what it was to live in a country where peace reigned.

But there was also something magical about that land beyond the invisible border: Soccer was everywhere. On gravel pitches and sandy beaches, on sidewalks and city squares, the ball was played back and forth between hordes of young men. The balls were made of the most remarkable materials, an old T-shirt or fishing net or woman's handbag filled up with paper and grass. But they rolled and bounced, and you could do headers with them and make goals with them. War could never kill soccer in Angola. The soccer fields were demilitarized zones, and the face-off between teams conducting an intense yet essentially friendly battle served as a defense against the horrors that raged all around. It is harder for people who play soccer together to go out and kill each other.

Angola has seen many of its soccer players leave the country to seek their livelihood, mostly in Portugal. But they have not given up their citizenship. And when they are called home to put on black shorts and red socks and jerseys, their national team colors, they do not hesitate. They are known fondly as Palancas Negras, the "black antelopes."

On the eighth of October 2005, Angola arrives at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali. At that moment the astonishing situation is that if Angola can beat Rwanda by even a single goal, it will qualify for the World Cup ahead of Nigeria—no matter what happens in Nigeria's game against Zimbabwe. It is a nightmarish wait for all the Angolans who sit with their ears glued to radios. Luanda stands still, Huambo, Lubango, Namibe, Lobito, Benguela, Malanje, every city, every village is gathered at radios. Perhaps even the antelopes themselves stand out on the savanna with pricked ears.

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