In his second diary instalment from the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, Shamrock Rovers defender Roberto Lopes breaks down a week of highs and lows for Cape Verde with broken glass, broken sleep and the surprise of a Cork accent shouting best wishes
SATURDAY JANUARY 8
You don’t need an alarm clock in Cameroon. Instead, it’s random blast of a vuvuzela or a horn on the streets of Yaounde that wakes you up. Or if you’re in our hotel, it’s a combination of that and the construction work going on across the street. At this stage, I’ve realised that if somebody is walking by on the street and they have a vuvuzela, they’re going to blow it. It’s the eve of our first game and it’s beginning to feel real.
We travel on the bus to evening training at the Olembe Stadium complex and the journey is slow because when people see we’re in an official vehicle, they crowd around it. The Olembe is a 60,000 seater venue as part of an academy-type complex and teams train on the grass pitches spread around the main bowl.
Nerves are growing. We lighten the mood with a five-a-side tournament at the end; I’m on the winning team and we always make a fuss over whoever comes out on top, but you can still feel the apprehension.
Our head coach, Bubista, is still in Cape Verde waiting for a negative PCR so he can travel and half a dozen of our players are there with him, including our goalkeeper and captain. This isn’t the way we wanted to prepare for our first game.
Back in the hotel, we take turns to go into a room where the ice baths are set up. The kitman asks us to leave the training gear outside our door and lads are just in the corridor, stretching and waiting for their turn. Somebody brings the speakers out and all of a sudden, we’re dancing up and down the hallways. We were only there for 15 or 20 minutes, but it took my mind off everything, a perfect way to relax the body. It was brilliant.
SUNDAY JANUARY 9
Cape Verde 1 Ethiopia 0
At the full time whistle, I let out a cheer to myself. But I soon notice there’s nobody around me celebrating. The mood is strange. Lads are having a go at each other. We’ve won, but we know we haven’t played well.
Ethiopia were down to ten men for most of the game after they had a player sent off after a VAR review – that was a first for me – and we didn’t really make the most of it.
There’s a few lads chatting to our ’keeper, Marcio, about a few issues towards the end of the game. He’s 24 and it’s only his third cap. Our first choice, Vozinha, is one of those still in Cape Verde.
Marcio told me before the game that he was struggling with his hip, so he needed a bit of protection and for the ball to be played short, not long. But we had our own run-in during the first half, and it was a simple case of the language barrier.
A long ball is sent over the top towards us and I think he’s shouting ‘calma, calma’ which means time but he’s actually shouting ‘ganhar, ganhar (pronounced gana) which means to win the ball. I sort of let the ball brush past me off my chest and an Ethiopian player nearly nicks in to steal the ball and score.
We had a big argument afterwards on the pitch but then I decided to go back and apologise and told him I was in the wrong. It was a massive game for all us but particularly for him to be dropped into it.
In the dressing room after, it’s quiet. Bubista had sent us individual Whatsapp voice notes with instructions beforehand and then addressed the group over video, but it was odd without him there, this wasn’t how we had pictured it all.
Yes, there was a buzz coming into the stadium as Cameroon were playing Burkina Faso, but we are the second game of the double-header so the ground started to empty out. There was maybe a few thousand there at kick-off and Ethiopia did have a pocket of supporters making a din.
We were flat and sloppy, though, but as I said to the lads around me, it’s better to be talking that way with three points in the bag. Maybe we were downbeat because our stand-in captain, Stopira, a big personality full of energy, was taken away to anti-doping.
He’d done his bit across the day to step in for Marco Soares, our regular skipper, and raise morale and he sorted it out when I mentioned that the gap between our lunch and the 8pm kick-off was too long and we needed more than a snack as a pre-match meal.
When Kenny Rocha comes back into the room with his man of the match award, I think we started to realise we’d done what we came to do. The music was turned up again.
MONDAY JANUARY 10
Sleeping after a match is close to impossible. The adrenaline is running so high. I’d received so many messages yesterday afternoon that I had to put my phone on airplane mode but I tried to go through every one of them afterwards and reply. The volume was overwhelming.
Aaron Greene, my Shamrock Rovers team-mate, sent me a photo of his daughter Lily wearing a Cape Verde jersey.
It was 4am before I got my head down and then I woke up again at 5am as my roommate, Jeffry Fortes, had been in playing Nintendo Switch in another room.
The atmosphere is good because we’d got back from the stadium to find that our captain, Marco Soares, goalkeeper Vozinha and our striker Lisandro had flown in after passing the Covid check. Much as we’re tired and it’s a recovery day, we feel closer to a full group again.
As the other groups kick off, a familiar din of vuvuzelas tells us there’s a bar 100 metres down the street showing all of the other games. They’re starting to grow on me.
TUESDAY JANUARY 11
The drilling woke us up early this morning. I go back for a nap after breakfast only to get a surprise phone call that kills that plan. Antidoping have arrived and they’re looking for me today.
The agency came in and explained all of the rules and I had a great chat with the doctor, from Zambia, who tells me he was with them when they won the tournament in 2012. One of the best things about this experience is the stories of people you’d never meet otherwise.
For example, I was walking out of the tunnel before the Ethiopia match, following my pre-match routine of staring ahead, not looking at the opponent next to me, and trying to make myself look as big as possible when I heard a Cork accent scream ‘Come on Roberto!’
It was so unexpected that I had to turn around. I clocked who it was; there’s an Irishwoman, Andrea Grainger, working as one of the team services managers for the organisers.
She got in contact with me over Instagram before I came out here as she has a friend, a DJ from Limerick who lives in California, that contacted her when she got the job and told her about the Irish fella in the Cape Verde squad. We’ve kept in touch and went over to see her after the match.
I was only speaking to her today about the Algeria and Sierra Leone game she had attended, where there was hardly anyone in the stadium. It’s because the rules here are strict; you need to be vaccinated and have a negative PCR test to attend the games.
Only three percent of the people are vaccinated but that’s still a decent number with a 26 million population. The catch is that getting the negative PCR test at short notice is a real issue.
It’s no problem for the players, though, as we’re due another round today and they actually bring the lab to the hotel so we can watch the whole process play out in front of us.
The results come back efficiently and there’s bad news for one of our starting midfielders, Nuno Borges. We’ll miss him against Burkina-Faso.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 12
The day was going so well. I got my first good night’s sleep of the week, and there’s a bit of banter at breakfast because there’s a transfer story today that Kenny Rocha, our midfielder, is wanted by Liverpool amongst others.
His English isn’t brilliant and he’s been trying to practice it with me. We sat down on a trip to Serbia last year after he moved to Oostende in Belgium but his English was about as good as my Creole and it was a slow lesson.
I see him in the corridor and tell him that he’s going to have to improve it now if he’s going to Liverpool. He laughs it all off.
The Whatsapp group lights up in the afternoon when the referee blows up early in the Mali-Tunisia game. I’d been speaking to a French journalist when it all got kicked off but the tone of the messages could be summed up as ‘This is Africa, get used to it.’ It’s all part of the entertainment factor of the AFCON.
Unexpected things happen. I was starting to wonder where Gabon were, as Aubameyang and co were meant to be staying in our hotel. Our goalkeeping coach tells me they turned up, took one look at it and decided to stay somewhere else instead. Evidently, it’s not five star.
We’ve been looking to see if we could all get our own rooms if they had them free because the Covid protocols say that if your roommate tests positive, you’re out of the game no matter what. But it doesn’t seem to be happening and the blame seems to be shared around for it.
I’m brushing my teeth before bed when I step on something in the bathroom. I think it’s a stone and use my other foot to dislodge it, yet it’s only when I walk back towards the bed that I look down and there’s blood gushing out. I go back in to explore and found the culprit, an unexplained shard of glass.
The cleaners had been in that morning and perhaps some equipment was dropped. It was too late to wake the doctor for a plaster so I fashioned one by taking some tissue and then using the string off my mask to wrap around it.
Hand sanitiser was the disinfectant. I turned to Jeffry, who was watching something on Netflix, and told him that if he woke up in the morning to see blood everywhere, he knows where it’s coming from. Not ideal.
THURSDAY JANUARY 13:
Cape Verde 0 Burkina Faso 1
Another matchday, another double header with Cameroon up first. We know it’s going to be lively from early morning and the horns are going off from 9am. The good news is that my bush doctor efforts seem to have worked on my cut but the bad news is that I couldn’t sleep for ages after it.
There’s an unexpected visitor at lunch. Bubista has made it at last, and we give him a standing ovation. He doesn’t have the CAF sanctioned PCR test to stand on the sideline, but he’s coming with us to the game and can speak in the dressing room.
The stadium is heaving when we land because Cameroon have just knocked four past Ethiopia; they scored one of the goals on the way there and fans streamed out of the bars and onto the streets to celebrate around our bus.
It’s 25 degrees at kick off. The one thing I’ve noticed is that while the mosquitoes, the moths and the flies can make our evening training a bit challenging, the temperatures aren’t that much of a factor.
Once you get in the stadium, though, it’s closer to a sauna. The dry air takes the oxygen away from you and I’m feeling it in the first five minutes, until I get so engrossed in the game that there’s no time to think about it.
We knew Burkina-Faso were going to be a step up from Ethiopia and it’s obvious immediately. Our analysis work is very good, but we were expecting a more physical presence from them up top.
Instead, they had a playmaker, Gustavo Sangre, dropping deep to get the ball, and every time he did there were runners off him.
They stretched us and it was backs to the wall early on, for sure, but I feel we were starting to grow into it when we concede a sloppy one. We let a cross come on too easily and positionally we weren’t ready for it. I’m annoyed with myself because I went against my instincts and should have covered the front post better.
On the ball, we give a much better account of ourselves than we did against Ethiopia, we show we can compete at this level but we can’t execute the final ball or the final pass.
And the first goal is important because the pitch is enormous, it seems to be bigger than the Aviva Stadium, which takes some doing. It’s like there’s an extra yard to cover and when you’re the team that needs to push towards the end of the match, it’s doubly hard.
It just saps the energy in your legs. I’m needed to make some interceptions as we chase it in the last ten. I don’t think people watching at home notice it but inside I’m feeling that I’m completely empty.
At full time, we’re very down but I feel like we’re in danger of being too disheartened. I go around to the lads sitting down on the grass and tell them to get up because we still have one more game to come and a positive result against Cameroon could bring us through. We’re far from out of this.
FRIDAY JANUARY 14
The body is in bits today, I can’t lie. That football sauna takes it out of you. My hips are a bit sore and I know where that’s coming from.
I’ve had a few comments from home on a tackle in the first half on their right winger, Issa Kabore, who I didn’t realise was a Man City player.
I won the ball cleanly and yet he still needed treatment after it, but it wasn’t intentional, honest. I was travelling at such a pace that I had to dive in or else I wouldn’t have been able to stop in time if he knocked it past me and then it would have been a peno.
I think my hips clattered into his stomach and knocked the wind out of him. For defenders, those tackles are as good as goals!
After dinner in our hotel, our manager stood up and told us that we’d only lost twice in our last 14 games, and we needed to move past this and bring back the happiness.
We took four points off Cameroon in the qualifiers, but we know they’re going to be a different beast at home in a tournament and we’re going to have close to 80pc capacity for Monday too, so it’s going to be lively.
I normally take losses very hard and allow myself 24 hours to process but before I went to sleep last night and I’d told myself there wasn’t time for that now.
We can’t dwell on what ifs or worry too much about the permutations for qualifying, although we know goal difference might still be important with four third-placed teams advancing. What we can control is our morale and our attitude .
This will be the biggest game of our careers.