Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks make a big splash

The national football team's oach Lúcio Antunes: “We respect all our opponents but we are not afraid of anyone.”

The room of a young immigrant from Cape Verde to the United States (Mary Beth Meehan).

Almost one fifth of Cape Verde’s population would fit in the stands of The Calabash, the 95,000-capacity stadium where the Blue Sharks will today play their first ever Africa Cup of Nations match. Being recognized as one of the 16 best African national teams is a milestone in the country’s sports history, and the highlight thus far was when Cape Verde defeated four-time Afcon winners, Cameroon, 3-2 on aggregate in qualifying (with a memorable 2-0 win at Estádio da Várzea, Praia City, in the first leg). When the victory in Yaoundé was official, fireworks went off. Car horns honked from the street. There were huge parties on each of the nine inhabited islands. Hundreds of people waited all night long at the airport and they cheered and applauded the national team when they arrived home at 5:40 am. (For a sense of the national mood on the eve of Afcon 2013, see this music video.)

Many fans are probably expecting similar performances against the three teams Cape Verde will face in Group A; especially as Cape Verde is ranked 15th in Africa, ahead of Morocco (17), Angola (19) and South Africa (22), according to the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. In 2009, Cape Verde played twice against their Lusophone brothers Angola and won the first match 1-0 and drew the other 1-1. But the Cape Verdean people are aware of the smallness of their country, know that they will face two former champions, and that this is Angola’s seventh participation. So what they expect of the “Tubarões Azuis” is that they play well, give everything they have and make the nation proud. And to win one match (at least).

The other fifteen teams won’t have had the kind of problems that Cape Verde have faced in the run-up to the tournament, specifically the reluctance of many players to represent the national team for fear of losing money and damaging their careers in Europe. Even the President of the Republic took part in efforts to raise cash for the Blue Sharks stay in South Africa.

This could, perhaps should, have been Cape Verde’s second appearance at Africa’s top sporting event. We only missed out on the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea by a couple of goals in qualification. But team coach Lúcio Antunes (he’s chums with Jose Mourinho) learned his lesson and dealt properly with the team’s perennial Achilles heel when they played against Madagascar and won 7-1 on aggregate. Then, when confronted with the big boys from Cameroon, he did what he does best: setting the team up to look for chances to counter-attack and exploit the opponent’s mistakes.

Typically, Lúcio Antunes plays a 4-3-3 formation. I expect that between the posts we’ll see Jozimar “Vozinha” Dias, 26, who plays in Angola at Progresso Sambizanga and has decent aerial ability. Full-back Admilson “Gegê” Barros, 24, a player with good awareness and strong tackling ability who play for CS Marítimo (Portugal), will probably retain his place at right back. The skipper and defensive leader is the veteran Fernando “Nando” Neves, 34, who plays for the French side LB Châteauroux from Ligue 2. His partner will be Fernando Varela (FC Vaslui, Romania), 25, who has a physically imposing presence and good aerial ability. On the left side of defence, Carlos “Carlitos” Tavares (AEL FC Limassol, Cyprus), 27, provides good defensive support.

Portuguese-born Marco Soares (AC Omonia, Cyprus), 28, is a solid and experienced defensive midfielder and also a tidy passer. Helping him in the same role will probably be the reliable, versatile and dynamic Toni Varela (Sparta Rotterdam, Netherlands), 26. Elvis “Babanco” Macedo (S.C. Olhanense, Portugal), 27, has a more attacking role in the midfield, with the task of opening up the channels for his teammates.

Cape Verde’s star player Ryan Mendes (LOSC Lille, France), 23, has tremendous skills and will lead the attack from the right side with his ability to dribble, cutting inside, trying to break down the defense with either shots on goal or setting up chances for the striker. He scored three goals in the two matches against Madagascar. On the left wing, the supporting forward Heldon “Nhuk” Ramos (CS Marítimo, Portugal), 24, has as his top attributes pace, the ability to dribble and effectiveness from free kicks, scoring a beautiful free-kick in Yaoundé.

In the center of the attack, SL Benfica’s striker Jorge “Djaniny” Semedo (currently on loan at S.C. Olhanense, Portugal), 21, is a tireless worker who scored one of the goals in the home win over Cameroon. Spotted by a Portuguese Mayor visiting Cape Verde, Djaniny played in an amateur league for the team supported by the Mayor, scoring 50 goals in two years. Then he signed a contract with a local Premier League club where he played for one season before signing a contract with SL Benfica.

Despite Cape Verde being minnows, they raised eyebrows by eliminating Cameroon, and their pre-tournament friendlies have been encouraging, losing honorably 1-0 against heavyweights Ghana and drawing 0-0 with Nigeria. This young and inexperienced squad may have lost the element of surprise. But what remains are the powerful words from our coach Lúcio Antunes: “We respect all our opponents but we are not afraid of anyone.”

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