An Ode To José Quitongo

In January 1576 the Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais (the grandson of Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to anchor in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa) founded the city we know today as Luanda. It’s the capital and largest city in Angola which is the seventh-largest country on the African continent. 

Making up a third of the country’s population, Luanda (with more than 8.3 million inhabitants) is the most populous Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) city outside of Brazil. The city has a troubled past as the centre of the slave trade to Brazil but is now an economic centre of the oil industry with the Angolan capital having a refinery located in the city itself.

From Luanda To Lisboa: African Attacker On Portuguese Periphery

This particular story of appreciation is about the footballer and Luanda native José Quitongo who, in 2004, brought flair and electric performances to Waterford in the League of Ireland.

The 5ft 8” winger was born in Angola in 1974 and eleven years later began his youth career with Benfica of Lisbon. He formed part of the first team squad in 1992 with players such as Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes who would go on to become legendary figures in the Portuguese game. During his two seasons there, Quitongo played around 20 times and had a loan spell with lowly Estoril before being released by Os Encarnados at the end of the 1993/94 campaign

A difficult time for any young player, particularly a twenty-year-old far from home, yet Quitongo’s next move was an unlikely spell playing in the south-east of Ireland. He joined Waterford United and made his debut at their Regional Sports Centre ground in a 1-0 win over St. James’s Gate. An exhilarating player who loved to dribble, Quitongo excited the home fans even if his finishing could prove to be somewhat erratic and his final ball left a lot to be desired. 

This is reflected in an Irish Independent report by Noel Dunne writing about a match between Waterford and UCD. He noted: ‘Quitongo, a fast and tricky striker who would also have figured on the scoresheet had his finishing been equal to the rest of his ability.’ A two goal victory at Bellfield saw Victor Dominguez, the other Portuguese speaking member of manager Johnny Matthews side, score a brilliant solo effort.

Quitongo In Blue: A Crowd Puller

The Angolan native quickly became a popular player with local supporters and after a month at the club the Munster Express wrote:

“Jose Quitongo is going to draw crowds with his skill on the ball, but he needs to have his fellow players running with him when he goes on one of his jinking forays, to give him options to release the ball when he is tackled. No use just standing back and admiring his skill. He gives the side the option of playing round the opposing midfielders instead of through them.”

A hamstring injury meant Waterford missed the services of Quitongo for nearly six weeks, but having just turned 21 he marked his return with two goals against St. James’s Gate at the Iveagh grounds in December 1994. It was quite a remarkable return which included an overhead kick converted just 45 seconds into the game. Though he would put the Blues further ahead on 24 minutes, St. James’s came back to tie the game at two goals apiece.

The diminutive attacker with his particular style and swagger was seen as one of the most exciting strikers in the League of Ireland First Division, but that notwithstanding, the Blues still struggled for positive results in the early weeks of the new year. Something of an upturn in performances did see the Blues beat Bray by a single goal and gain a two-all draw with Premier Division Galway United at Terryland Park in the first round of the FAI Cup. The Blues had recently installed floodlights at their RSC ground and had yet to win under them, a run that continued with a 1-1 draw against James’s Gate, despite another Quitongo effort. 

Many articles in the media suggested the poor quality and often muddy pitch at the RSC was hampering Quitongo’s dribbling ability. The pitch would be such a problem that after 58 minutes of the cup replay with Galway United, the game was abandoned as ‘the pitch deteriorated into a dangerous sea of mud’.

By February the wily Angolan attacker was assessing his options. The weekend before Valentine’s Day he travelled to Sweden and held talks with Second Division side Koping who wanted him in time for the start of their season in April. It was discussed that the winger could play in Sweden until September and return to Waterford for the 95/96 league campaign. Two weeks later Quitongo was reported to be wanted for a trial by Scottish club St. Johnstone, then under the tutelage of Paul Sturrock, along with keeper Scott Garlick, his American teammate at Waterford, .

Back on the field of play Waterford again drew with Galway United in the cup and with extra-time unable to spilt the teams another replay was required. Kevin O’Sullivan of the Connacht Sentinel remarked of the Blues performance: ‘it was a revival sparked by Waterford’s suave import, Jose Quitongo – he is best described as a 20-year old Portuguese with an African-sounding name and playing a Brazilian brand of soccer.’ His dazzling skills were further displayed against Kilkenny City with his jinking run and assist to Kevin Kelly on 77 minutes helping keep the Blues promotion push alive.

Mid-March saw Waterford United’s hopes of promotion to the top-flight further hampered by a 3-1 defeat to Limerick, José Quitongo scoring his side’s solitary goal. A one-nil defeat to Longford Town ruled out automatic promotion and while a third place play-off spot was mathematically possible, the Blues lacked the momentum necessary to make a confident push towards it in their final four games.

This was a positive year individually for Quitongo however and he left for Sweden just after mid-April. Waterford retained his registration, though a change in manager with Michael Bennett (father of professional cyclist Sam Bennett) replacing Matthews saw no return for the Angolan as Bennett believed the player would not fit into his plans for the 1995/96 season.

Much of the rest of Quitongo’s playing career was spent in Scotland between 1995 and 2004 taking in spells with Hamilton Academicals, Heart of Midlothian, St. Mirren and Kilmarnock. His time in Edinburgh was the most successful of his career and he was involved for Jim Jefferies team when Hearts beat Glasgow Rangers 2-1 in the 1998 Scottish Cup final.

The Return: Quitongo’s Second-Half Suirside

José Quitongo would return to play for the Blues of Waterford in June 2004. Signed by former teammate Alan Reynolds on a one-month deal, Reynolds noted that Quitongo still had:

 “A bag of tricks and is great on the ball. He’s quick, bubbly and lively, he excites the crowd and I think he will give the team a lift. He’s an old-fashioned winger, he loves getting the ball to his feet and taking on defenders, and hopefully he can add something to the squad.” 

His return was delayed by a damaged calf muscle and he eventually made his entrance against Derry City at the RSC, though was powerless to stop his side from going down to a two goal defeat. The Blues had lost four games in a row in the Premier Division before finally gaining a point against Bohemians at Dalymount Park.

Defeating Shamrock Rovers two-nil was a highpoint in an inconsistent league campaign for the club, one overshadowed by the stellar cup run which saw the Blues progress to a first FAI Cup final since 1986 – with Quitongo starring as an attacking creator. 

As the Blues efforts to qualify for Europe were humiliatingly dashed by a 4-1 defeat at home to Munster rivals Cork and an agonising defeat to Longford Town in the Final, by late November it was clear that José Quitongo would depart the RSC again and return to Scotland.

Epilogue

As a Waterford supporter who has fallen in and out of love with the club more often than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were married, there was something about seeing Quitongo jinking and shimmering past opposition full-backs with his dreadlocks flowing that stays with me nearly 17 years after last seeing him play. 

I was too young to have seen his first spell with the club, but I can remember the palpable sense of anticipation in older supporters who witnessed him anytime he got on the ball. Perhaps it’s the performer in Quitongo that makes him not only enjoyable to watch but even more relatable. The fact his original arrival at the club coincided with the introduction of floodlights at the Regional Sports Centre, and his return coincided with the Blues enjoying a fine cup run certainly cements fondness for a player who never really returned the goal tally his talents suggested he should have.

José Quitongo was gregarious, he had swagger, he had a penchant for the unpredictable. For the League of Ireland and certainly for Waterford in the 1990s he represented that most unusual of things – a genuine creative maverick with silky skills matched by an even bigger heart. For those brief few months in 2004 he was ours again. It’s witnessing a player like him while attending games with my father and brother Olin is why I love soccer. I owe that to José. It’s not always about winning but the way you play the game and that’s why the wee Angolan is a legend in my eyes.

CIAN MANNING

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