Thursday 14 December 2017

Cape Verde come out of the shadows with flourish

Former Portuguese colony finding its feet on international stage, says Paul Doyle

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.

Nani plays for Portugal, the great Henrik Larsson was captain of Sweden and Patrick Vieira won the World Cup with France. Those are just some of the players who, through either birth or parentage, could have played for Cape Verde.

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 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 Tubaroes Azuis (Blue Sharks) in the play-offs.

"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 Lucio Antunes after securing qualification. The 46-year-old manager has been integral to his country's progress.

He was in charge of the country's youth teams on a part-time basis for several years before replacing the Portuguese Joao 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 plays in the domestic league, as the likes of the speedy winger Ryan Mendes (Lille) and top scorer Heldon 'Nhuck' Ramos (Maritimo) 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 qualification for the Africa Nations, winning the gold medal at the 2009 Jogos da Lusofonia, the equivalent of the Commonwealth Games for Portuguese-speaking nations. A decade ago Cape Verde were ranked 182nd in the world; now they're 69th.

They intend to make an impact even though they have been drawn in a daunting group against Morocco, Angola and the hosts South Africa.

"We know everybody is watching us because we knocked out Cameroon," says the Portugal-born defender Fernando Varelo, who plays his club football for Vaslui in Romania. "We want to win every match – 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 defensive-minded team. The Blue Sharks have sharp teeth, thanks to two wide men serving two powerful and nimble forwards, including Nhuck, whose delivery and shooting from set-pieces is another potent weapon.

That is why they go to South Africa as the Cape of Good Hope.


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