The Blue Sharks

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was January 16th 2013.

The Republic of Cape Verde is a small group of islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean around 350 miles from the West African Coast. A former Portuguese colony that gained independence in 1975, Cape Verde holds a population of over 500’000 people scattered over 10 main islands. It’s likely that most people’s knowledge of this place stems from tourist brochures.

For the football watching public of the world, that is about to change. In just a few short days the football team of this tiny nation will step out onto the South African fields of AFCON 2013, for their first participation in a major sporting tournament, one of the most notable minnows of recent times.

Cape Verde football has struggled for the vast majority of its existence. Starting off with a 3-0 defeat to Guinea-Bissau four years after independence, it took a further seven years for the nation to be admitted to FIFA and they only started competing for a place in major tournaments in 1994, with no success for many years.

This state of affairs was probably all the more frustrating considering the depth of talent that has been born on the Cape Verde islands, only to wind up playing abroad and for other nations. Jorge Andrade, Gelson Fernandes and Manchester United’s Nani were all born in the small nation, but due to emigrating young have ended up plying their international trade for other European nations, a common state of affairs. Portugal, the old coloniser, has been the main port of call for a diaspora that actually out-numbers the population of the islands themselves. Players like Patrick Viera, Henrik Larrson and David Mendes da Silva all have family ties to the Cape Verde islands.

It works the other way as well of course, and Cape Verde’s recent rise in fortunes is mostly down to the influx of second and third generation talent returning to their ancestral homeland to play their international games. Much like Ireland in the 80’s and 90’s, the utilisation of the “grandfather” rule has helped turn a corner for Cape Verdian football, turning a sizable ex-pat community into a positive, a recruiting ground that other nations do not share. Those players, playing in the leagues of Portugal, Italy and France, have radically altered the success rate of the small association, making them a sudden force to be considered for a continent routinely dominated by much larger nations. Starting with the significant scouting and recruitment policy of Portuguese coach Joao de Deus a few years ago, Cape Verde began to string together victories for the first time in their existence, finishing second in an 2010 AFCON/WC qualifying group of Cameroon, Tanzania and Mauritius, no small feat considering the previous state of the countries football structure. Cruelly however, they were denied a place in the last round of qualifying, by a mere two points.

Lucio Antunes, a local-born manager, was next up in the hot seat. Continuing the previous policy of looking abroad and in the emigrant generations for the pillars of the team, he has also cultivated an impressive youth programme that has had some success in U-21 competitions. In the AFCON 2012 Qualifying campaigns, he may have thought his team had done enough to advance to subsequent rounds with wins over Mali, Liberia and Zimbabwe. But, once again, fate was against them, their head-to-head record after tying on points with Mali, not good enough to win first place in the group, and then losing out on a “best runner-up” position by a one goal to Sudan.

While some set-ups, all too true in Africa, may have fallen apart in the wake of such consecutive disappointments, work continued to be done and the team continued to gel. All of that work paid off in the qualifying campaign for AFCON 2013. Benefiting from the reduced format due to the switch to odd years, Cape Verde stated their intentions plainly with a 7-1 aggregate thumping of Madagascar before facing the tougher challenge of Cameroon. Previously the Golden Boys of African football, Cameroon have been in a serious decline for many years, but that should take nothing away from the achievement of Cape Verde in beating them at home 2-0 and holding them with a 2-1 loss away in order to book their place at South Africa. The contrast between the two nations, one rising, one falling, cannot be lost on anyone. That they did so despite losing the second leg, and being 3-0 up on aggregate at one point, was especially remarkable.

So, what do Cape Verde have in their squad to show off? Fernando “Nando” Neves is the captain of the squad, a tough centre back with 38 appearances in seven years. Currently playing in the second tier of French football, his organisational skills and experience will be crucial to weathering any big tournament nerves. The rising star to watch is probably 21 year old striker Djaniny, a current loaner for Benfica, considered one of the finest home-grown players the nation currently has. Goals have never been in plentiful supply for Cape Verde (their thrashing of Madagascar notwithstanding) and it is in their defence and attack that their fortunes will probably be made.

But the real man to look out for is Lille’s Ryan Mendes, the 22 forward/winger making a name for himself in both the French Leagues and the Champions League. Making a big contribution to Le Harve over the last few years, he has made the step up to one of the best squads in French football. Strong in possession, notably quick and with great ball control, Mendes has become one of his countries brightest talents, scoring three of Cape Verde’s 10 goals in qualifying.

He and the rest of the “Blue Sharks” face no easy task in getting out of AFCON’s Group A. Hosts South  Africa are up first, in the opening game of the tournament, with “Bafana Bafana” playing in their first major competition since they hosted the biggest stage of all. Having failed to make it out of the Group A on that occasion, they will be unlikely to underestimate any opposition. After that it’s Morocco, who picked up only one win in AFCON 2012 and find themselves nine FIFA ranking places below Cape Verde. Cape Verde will hope that such rankings are a genuine measure of their current standing with at least a draw possible. Then, lastly, Angola, who scraped into the tournament in an away goals victory over lowly Zimbabwe and have struggled since crashing out of AFCON 2012 with a 2-2 draw to Sudanese minnows illustrating starkly their deficiencies.

On their current level of form and with the talent that they have in the squad (despite some injury problems in the lead-up) Cape Verde are capable of at least four points in this group, possibly five or six, which should see them through to the heady heights of the knock-out stages. Such a goal is not unreasonable. While Cameroon were not at their best, Cape Verde have been on an upward trajectory for several years now, and may well continue to surprise people in the years to come. AFCON 2013 may just be another road mark on that journey.

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