Cape Verde are minnows no more on eve of Africa Cup of Nations debut
Paul Doyle, The Observer
It has been some journey for Cape Verde to reach this tournament and now the Blue Sharks must face South Africa.
For years it was the invisible cape. You knew it existed but you never saw it: Cape Verde made its presence felt on football’s international stage but never appeared there itself. Manchester United’s Nani plays for Portugal, the Celtic great Henrik Larsson was captain of Sweden and Patrick Vieira won the World Cup with France. Those are just some of the scores of players who, through birth or parentage, could have played for Cape Verde but represented other African or European countries instead. Even Cristiano Ronaldo has Cape Verdean roots, though having a great-grandmother from one of the 10 islands that make up this archipelago nation would not have been enough to entitle him to play for Cape Verde even if he had wanted to.
But enough about players who do not play for the former Portuguese colony. For the first time the story is about those who do.
Next weekend Cape Verde will make their debut in the Africa Cup of Nations, becoming the smallest country to reach the continent’s showpiece tournament. Only just over 500,000 people live on these islands clustered 350 miles off Africa’s mid-Atlantic coast but, due to emigration that began even before the country gained independence in 1975, there is a worldwide diaspora amounting to several times that number.
A concerted effort to convince football-playing emigrants and their children to declare for the motherland has helped create a team that has made Cape Verde minnows no more. Just ask Cameroon, the four-times African champions who were eliminated by the Tubarões Azuis (Blue Sharks) in play-offs last September and October. “The most important thing is to show a good image of Cape Verde so that people can see the amount of work we have done over the last few years,” said Lúcio Antunes after securing qualification. The 46-year-old manager has been integral to his country’s progress.
Antunes was in charge of the country’s youth teams on a part-time basis for several years before replacing the Portuguese João de Deus at the helm of the senior team in 2010, a promotion that required him to take a sabbatical from his full-time job as an air traffic controller in the country’s main airport on the island of Sal. Antunes had already begun recruiting talented youngsters of Cape Verdean origin as well as seeking opportunities for players born on the islands to advance their development with foreign clubs. Only one of the 23 players he takes to South Africa now plays in the domestic league and the speedy winger Ryan Mendes (Lille) and top scorer, Héldon “Nhuck” Ramos (Marítimo), are among those to have made successful transitions to European clubs.
Many of the squad have been with Antunes since youth level, several of them having been members of the under-21 team that produced the country’s greatest football feat before this current qualification, winning the gold medal at the 2009 Jogos da Lusofonia, the equivalent of the Commonwealth Games for Portuguese-speaking nations. That achievement may not have inspired global acclaim, especially as Brazil did not send a team, but the youngsters proved they were an emerging force when several of them were part of the team that held Portugal to a historic 0-0 draw in Lisbon before the last World Cup and then came within one match of qualifying for last year’s Africa Cup of Nations. A decade ago Cape Verde were ranked 182nd in the world; they now stand 69th.
They intend to make an impact on the tournament even though they have been drawn in a daunting group with Morocco, Angola and the hosts South Africa. “We know that everybody is watching us because we knocked out Cameroon and we are not going there to mess around,” says the Portugal-born defender Fernando Varelo, who plays his club football for Vaslui in Romania. “We want to win every match and do our best – expect rigour and hard work.”
Rigour and hard work have been two of the hallmarks of the team under Antunes and were to the fore again when Cape Verde held Nigeria to a 0-0 draw in a friendly on Wednesday. The defence was outstanding, with the 34-year-old captain, Nando Maria Neves, proving a colossus in the centre that meant, mercifully for the commentators perhaps, that there was little cause to mention the Cape Verde goalkeeper, Fredson Tavares, also known as Fock.
But Cape Verde are not a defence-minded team. The Blue Sharks have sharp teeth, thanks to a pair of rapid wide men deployed to serve two powerful and nimble forwards, including Nhuck, whose delivery and shooting from set pieces give the side another potent weapon.
That is why they go to South Africa as the Cape of Good Hope.