Cape Verde arrive on big stage

Manchester United winger Nani is from Cape Verde, while Swedish superstar Henrik Larsson's mother hails from Cape Verde.

You can see we’re clutching at straws here because the island nation has little football pedigree to speak of. In fact, the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations mark the first time the country has qualified for the continental finals.

Cape Verde's status has certainly improved in recent years and they enter Afcon 2013 as the highest ranked of the teams in Group A. As recently as 2010, they held a full strength Portugal, then ranked third in the world, to a goalless draw. To qualify for the finals, they defeated traditional African power Cameroon 3-2 on aggregate.

As finals debutants, the Blue Sharks will be under pressure to get off to a good start in South Africa. Their opponents in the tournament's opening game will be Bafana Bafana, meaning there will be plenty of pressure on both teams to produce a favourable result.

Midfielder Odair Fortes missed the 2-0 win in Praia in the first leg and the 2-1 defeat in Yaounde through injury. The Stade de Reims player has been a regular for the team since first being capped in 2010 and says: "We are very robust in defence and quick and opportunistic in attack. For those reasons, we are good at counter-attacking."

However, he adds that they do not always sit back to simply allow the opponents to dictate the game. This was apparent in the return leg against Cameroon. The home side needed to score at least twice to stay in contention, but the Blue Sharks stunned the crowd with an early goal from the team’s 2012 qualifying top-scorer, Maritimo striker Heldon Nhuck Ramos. "I think we also have skills enough to take the game to our opponents. This team is a good mix of generations. Our captain, Fernando Neves (Nando) is 34, but he is enthusiastic as if he was still 20. We have good players from Portuguese and Eastern European clubs, and also Ryan Mendes [of Lille], who is very promising."

Don’t think for a moment this qualification is a flash in the pan. The team missed out on goal-difference to Mali for a place at the 2012 AFCON in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and Fortes said the mood has been high since then. "We started believing in ourselves when we beat Mali in our first qualifier for 2012. This gave us a lot of confidence. Though we eventually did not make it to the finals, we knew it was not an impossible dream to qualify for future tournaments."

Cape Verde, with a population of 500 000, will, though, have never come close to playing in front of the crowd of 94 700 that will attend the opening game against South Africa.

The teams do have some history, having met twice previously. In 2003, Bafana Bafana won 2-1 in Bloemfontein. The following year they prevailed by the same margin in Praia, but those results will count for nothing at Afcon 2013.

Lets also throw in a surprising statistic. Cape Verde will be the highest placed team in the FIFA rankings in group A.
 
Midfielder Heldon, who plays for CS Marítimo in Portugal, will be one of their key players. He was their top goal scorer in qualifying for Afcon 2013. Lito, who has played in Portugal his entire career, is another player the islanders will look to for goals.

Defender Nando, aged 34, has played in a number of leagues around Europe and Asia and lends a measure of experience to the team's defence.

Fortes credits coach Lucio Antunes with Cape Verde's improvement and the collective strength of the team. The unity may be surprising as the Blue Sharks draw players from many different countries, many of whom were not born in the central Atlantic Ocean island country. "It is due to the work of the coach. We, the players, do not know each other very well. Despite that, we are very strong as a team. We must pay tribute to the coach for this achievement," Fortes explained.

Perhaps some Jose Mourinho magic will wear off on Antunes. Antunes took a week off from his job as an air traffic controller and spent it with the Special One watching Real Madrid train.

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