GHANA may seem an unlikely source for support, but Scottish club Rangers are guaranteed the backing of fans from the African nation in Thursday's UEFA Cup tie against Maritimo. Ghanaians are still stunned that their national coach, Mariano Barreto, walked out on the job to become the Maritimo boss - without telling them.
A director at the Ghanaian FA, Abrah Appiah, said: "He did not give us any reason to believe he had lost interest in the job, and it's difficult to comprehend why he could not tell us that he wanted to leave. He does not deserve to be taken seriously, if it's proved that he left without informing his employers."
Appiah was speaking after Barreto had been introduced at Maritimo, whose previous coach, Manuel Cajuda, left after a 3-0 opening-day defeat to Belenenses. Barreto has some previous form: it was only after he was appointed Ghana coach that management learned that he had been less than honest in his application. Barreto had claimed that he was assistant coach of Lokomotiv Moscow, but he was merely fitness coach, and though he claimed that he had acted as an assistant coach at Borussia Dortmund, he worked in Germany only as a physical trainer, and as translator for midfielder Paulo Sousa. Ghanaian newspaper Soccer Express reported: "The assertion on his CV that he was the chief coach of Alverca in Portugal between 1999 and 2001 is a figment of his wildest imagination."
Yet he stayed in the job and proved most successful, winning 16, drawing one and losing one of 18 games. He helped the under-23 side to qualify for the Olympics, where they narrowly missed out on a place in the quarter-finals, and Ghana are top of their World Cup qualifying group, ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. But now he is focused on coaching on the island of Madeira - and the Rangers match.
He said: "The fact that Maritimo are in the UEFA Cup was a big factor in taking the job, because my experience at club level had been with top European sides. I now hope that I can help Maritimo achieve the ambitions of the president, directors and supporters. When I made the decision to come here, I had no major doubts: I believe in the project, and think I can do well here."
Maritimo qualified by finishing in sixth place in the Portuguese league last season, taking the place of Portuguese Cup winners Benfica, who qualified for the Champions League. They were far from entertaining: a measly defence, marshalled by the former Motherwell defender Mitchell van der Gaag, conceded 33 goals in 34 games, while a Brazilian-based forward line scored only 35.
Barreto has vowed to bring excitement back to Madeira. "The players here are good and have plenty of experience. The team wants to work hard to improve, and I would be worried if it was any other way: we have the ability to be a typically attacking side."
Maritimo president Carlos Pereira spoke highly of Barreto, but is concerned that his arrival may have come too late to trouble a Rangers side still smarting from missing out on the Champions League.
"The Scottish team are big favourites for this game, and we are concerned about reaching the next round. They have already played more league games than us, and have played in Europe this season too."
More confidence exudes from upwardly-mobile Sporting Braga, fifth-place finishers last season and opponents of Hearts on Thursday night. Their coach is former Benfica boss Jesualdo Ferreira, who could barely contain his delight after the draw.
"I don't know much about them, but I think they are opponents we can get past," he declared. "We could have had to face Lazio or Besiktas, and they would have been tougher in sporting terms."
Under the presidency of a 34-year-old entrepreneur, Antonio Rodrigues, Braga have turned into a worthwhile side who are ready to convert a stream of midtable finishes into regular European qualification. Ferreira increased to eight the Brazilian quota at Sporting when he signed striker Lima on loan from Cruzeiro on deadline-day. It was his third new striker, and he will compete with talented youngster Cesinha and Joao Tomas, a former Benfica player, to start against Hearts.
A goal threat also looms in midfield in another Brazilian, Wender, while Daniel Kenedy, a Portugal winger expelled from the 2002 World Cup squad for failing a dope test, continues his rehabilitation at Braga after serving a year's ban.
Braga captain Jose Barroso, who was a member of the Porto team that beat Hearts 3-1 in a friendly in 1996, observed: "Hearts have a typically British stadium with an excellent atmosphere. They are a good club, but I think we have enough talent in our team to reach the next round."