by Piers Edwards
in BBC Sport, 19.11.2009
Mozambique's first Nations Cup in twelve years is largely thanks to the influence of Dutch coach Mart Nooij, says national captain Tico-Tico.
The Mambas ended an unwanted chapter in their history by beating Tunisia 1-0 in Maputo on Saturday to qualify for Angola 2010.
"The change of coaching staff has been very important to our success," Tico-Tico, 36, told BBC Sport.
Having taken charge in February 2007, Nooij has lifted Mozambique from 131st to 84th in the Fifa rankings and now placed them among Africa's best 16 teams.
And with Mozambicans generally being quite slight in stature, the coach devised a plan to overcome the problems of facing powerfully-built African rivals.
"We decided the best way to challenge them was by playing a quick game, as we have quick players and Mozambicans are naturally talented - with special technique," adds Tico-Tico.
"We have a coach from Holland and the Dutch believe in playing football."
One man with special technique is winger Elias Pelembe, popularly known as Domingues, who imparts considerable flair and vision to the Mambas.
And the 26-year-old, crowned South Africa's best league player in his debut season (2007-2008), compensates his diminutive size with a good footballing brain.
"The coach has changed Mozambican football," Domingues, who likens Nooij to a father figure, told BBC Sport.
"He gives freedom to the players, is a friend of ours, talks to everybody in the squad and doesn't have favourites."
After working with the Dutch FA as a training instructor, Nooij was effectively sent to Burkina Faso to assist the youth team while also coaching the coaches.
Nooij duly led the Burkinabe to their first World Cup at any level, after his under-20 side made the semi-finals of the African Youth Championship in 2003.
But taking Mozambique, from a tough group also comprising Nigeria and Kenya, to the Nations Cup is his greatest achievement.
"It's not only me as a coach without players who can execute his plans is like a boat without a sea," Nooij told BBC Sport.
The Dutchman's approach is at times wonderfully simple, at others more strategic as shown when he prepared his players for Saturday's heat by barring air conditioning in their rooms.
This definitely counted in the Mambas' favour on a hot afternoon and as the Carthage Eagles wilted late on, Dario Monteiro drilled in the match-winner.
That was only Mozambique's third goal in Group B and though they lack firepower, they don't concede too many in defence (just five in the group).
"A central plan of both Dutch football and my philosophy is that keeping the ball is the best defence, as the opponent cannot score," Nooij explains.
"The players love this style of play and because it corresponds to their skills, they can then show the public how good they are."
At home, where they held Ivory Coast last year, this approach served the Mambas well since this is where they picked up all seven of their Group B points.
Holding Nigeria to a 0-0 draw on the opening day, they then followed up with 1-0 wins against Kenya and Tunisia in the cavernous Machava Stadium.
And though never conceding on their artificial turf at home, Mozambique's three straight losses on the road is more of a problem (even if they only succumbed in Nigeria in injury time).
"In Angola, there will be 15 of us playing away which makes the refereeing and conditions similar for all the teams," the Dutchman rallied.
"If we could reach the quarter-finals, I would be delighted."
Mozambique have never got out of the Nations Cup group stages, but faced difficult sides in both 1996 (Tunisia, Ghana, Ivory Coast) and 1998 (Morocco, Egypt, Zambia).
And they are already grateful to their hosts - for when Angola beat Niger in Africa's first group phase in October 2008, it enabled Mozambique to go through as a best runner-up.
"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”