Cape Verde's Blue Sharks swim with the big fish

Reuters, Sunday 3 Feb 2013

Cape Verde are out of the African Nations Cup but can take satisfaction from a hugely successful tournament which put their tiny island nation on international soccer's map for the first time

Cape Verde
Cape Verde's Heldon (C) reacts as Ghana's Christian Atsu (R) consoles him after their African Cup of Nations (AFCON 2013) quarter-final soccer match at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth (Photo: AP)

Saturday's 2-0 defeat to Ghana brought to an end their first participation in a major tournament but, if they can build on the aggregate victory over Cameroon in the qualifying round and what they produced in their four finals matches here, it is unlikely to be their last.

Coach Lucio Antunes, Africa's answer to his close friend Jose Mourinho, emerged as one of the personalities of the competition and could well be leaving his day job as an air traffic controller for a full-time career in coaching soon.

His organisation of the 'Blue Sharks' was hugely impressive and they should no longer be regarded as the small fish in the pond of African football.

The team were disciplined at the back, industrious in midfield and full of attacking purpose up front which brought them draws in their first two games against South Africa and Morocco and a dramatic 2-1 comeback win over Angola that catapulted them into the last eight.

Antunes ran around the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium pitch with a giant Cape Verde flag to celebrate that victory then burst into song at his media conference, actions that Mourinho would certainly have approved of.

When Cape Verde were eliminated on Saturday, he summed up their tournament in words that would not have been out of place in a Mourinho news conference.

"We watched a beautiful game of football but the best team in the competition is going home so some of the shine has gone from the tournament," he said.

"But we have made our nation very proud. We have dignified the nation. We have got stronger and stronger as we have gone on and we were the better team tonight, but Ghana won, so the result is a fair one.

"It was a shame we did not get the goal that would have given us a draw, but congratulations to Ghana. But we have done well and now we will take a rest before our next game against Equatorial Guinea in the World Cup qualifiers."

Cool captain

Antunes said he regularly spoke to Mourinho during the competition and even pretended to be calling him at the end of one media conference, shouting "Hi, Jose" into a reporter's phone, but it was more than his links with the "Special One" that enabled Cape Verde to make the impact they did.

Goalkeeper Vozinha gave some assured displays under pressure, captain Nando was a cool influence in defence, while in midfield Babanco, Platini and Toni Varela constantly created space and opportunities for the front men.

Strikers Ryan Mendes, who plays in France for Lille, and Heldon, who plays for Maritimo and scored in the Europa League this season, were a handful for the opposing defences and, with greater accuracy on Saturday, Heldon could have scored a hat-trick.

Although they are the smallest nation to compete in the 56-year history of the finals, with a population of some 500,000, they have steadily climbed up the FIFA rankings over the last decade from 182nd place in 2003 to 70th.

They are also the 15th highest-ranked country out of Africa's 54 FIFA members and it is not inconceivable that they could qualify for the World Cup in the future.

Qualification for Brazil next year is unlikely because they have lost their opening two matches and trail group leaders Tunisia by six points.

Fifteen of the 23-man squad play overseas with clubs in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Romania, Cyprus and, naturally, Portugal, their colonial masters before independence in 1975.

There was huge interest in the Portuguese media surrounding their progress and the clash with Angola, the other former Portuguese colony competing here, attracted a large number of Portuguese reporters.

On Saturday, fans in Cape Verde flocked to the streets of the capital Praia and other towns such as Espargos with flags and replica shirts and even though the side went out, there was no real gloom over the result.

Cape Verde's national radio, monitored in Portugal declared: "The feeling is that the squad did everything they did to bring joy to the nation."

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