Cape Verde: Africa's Overachievers

on January 20 2013 3:09 PM
Cape Verde: Africa's Overachievers

The Cape Verde Islands' qualification for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations shocked many in the football world, and their fine start to the competition last week highlights a story threatening to rival fellow underdogs Zambia's march to the ACON title last year. 

Playing their first official match in January 1979, a 3-0 loss to fellow minnows Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde were only affiliated to FIFA in 1986. The country's attempt to qualify for the ACON began eight years later, but Cape Verde failed to complete the qualification process again until 2000. Their tiny population of just 500,000 makes competing with regional heavyweights Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt a huge challenge; indeed, Cape Verde are the smallest country ever to reach the finals of Africa's premier competition.

However, although bona fide superstars turning out in Cape Verde's blue, white and red have been few and far between, the Islands have contributed far more to football in recent years than many would imagine. Manchester United winger Nani, former Sweden captain Henrik Larsson, Besiktas midfielder Manuel Fernandes and Swiss international Gelson Fernandes, scorer of his team's winning goal against Spain at the 2010 World Cup, were all elegible to play for Cape Verde, but unsurprisingly chose bigger nations where international success was more likely. Although some of these players' ties to the Islands are distant, others are obvious: Nani was born in Praia, the capital, while Larsson's Cape Verdian father started his son's footballing career by encouraging him to play from a very young age.

As such, Cape Verde missed out on a highly promising generation of players and were forced to watch on as Portugal, Sweden et al benefitted from players of Cape Verde origin while the Islands' own team struggled along, only winning its first FIFA qualifer in 2006, against Swaziland. As Paul Doyle wrote in The Guardian earlier this month, "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."

Recent years have seen the team progress under the stewardship of Lucio Antunes, a full-time air traffic controller who had to take time off from work to manage Cape Verde at the ACON finals in South Africa this month. With a distinct lack of high-profile names applying for the job of Cape Verde national team coach, the country's football federation poached Antunes, who had previously worked part-time with Cape Verde's national youth-teams, from local club Academico do Sal in 2010.

Antunes has masterminded an incredible march up the FIFA World Rankings which saw Cape Verde reach 51st place in October 2012 - above the likes of Poland, Austria, Wales and African heavyweights Nigeria. They had been in 108th position when Antunes took the reigns. However, the 46-year-old's managerial campaign started amid an air of positivity, for just two months previously Cape Verde had held the a full-strength Portugal side - containing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira - to a goalless draw; a result made even more impressive given that Portugal were ranked third in the world at the time.

Aided by Antunes' ability to round up Cape Verdian expatriates from the length and breadth of Europe, the team finally embarked on its first successful qualifying campaign last year, culminating in a 3-2 aggregate win over heavily-fancied Cameroon over two legs. Antunes' squad for the finals this month showed just how far Cape Verde players have dispersed from their homeland - the manager will be able to call on players from clubs in Holland, France, Portugal, Romania, Angola, Cyrpus and even Luxembourg.

Although Antunes has used his squad's lack of international experience - particularly at tournaments - as a reason for modest ambitions at the ACON, in reality only one of his players, 19-year-old defender Pericles Pereira, is under 21 years of age. Antunes will look to 34-year-old captain Nando to lead from the back; the veteran has garnered a vast amount of experience at club level, marshalling defences in Switzerland, Portugal, Qatar, Tunisia, Czech Republic and France during his extensive career. Although Nando's fellow recruits may not be familiar with each other's personalities and playing styles, having been rounded up from across Europe and elsewhere, the captain believes their common goal has pulled them together: "We have Cape Verdians from many other countries but they have a common will and purpose. There is a lot of quality and a lot of competition for places in the team."

The Blue Sharks played their first ever match at the ACON finals last week, earning a creditable 0-0 draw with hosts and favourites South Africa in which Cape Verde not only frustrated their opponents defensively but also carved out the game's better chances - midfielder Platini missed a one-on-one before South Africa goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune made a fine stop to prevent a late winner for the underdogs. With Cape Verde's group also containing Morocco and Angola - who themselves played out a goalless draw on Saturday - Antunes' charges are likely to struggle to progress, with little to choose between the four teams on current form. While the team are defensively sound thanks to Nando and co, their attacking prowess leaves much to be desired, particularly against stronger teams. If only Antunes could persuade Henrik Larsson to come out of retirement...