One wouldn’t have thought that a job as an air traffic controller was the best grounding for someone who now manages an international team playing in a major tournament for the first time. The manager in question is Lúcio Antunes who took charge of the Cape Verde Islands in July 2010, but in doing so had to take a sabbatical from his duties at the Nelson Mandela Airport on the island of Sal. Tubarões Azuis - the Blue Sharks - hit the headlines when they qualified for the finals of the 2013 African Cup of Nations. The fact that Antunes had no previous senior football management experience makes the story of the turnaround in the fortunes of perennial underdogs Cape Verde even more newsworthy.
When he stepped into the manager role, Cape Verde were loitering in 108th position on FIFA’s ranking table, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Azerbaijan and Yemen. Their African Cup Nations history has been virtually non-existent, having never entered the competition prior to 1994. Subsequent attempts to qualify for the finals had been fruitless, but all that changed in October 2012. At the culmination of the qualification campaign, Cape Verde were paired with giants Cameroon in a two-legged knockout for the chance to compete in South Africa. The world sat up and took note when they won the home leg 2-0 and, despite a 2-1 away defeat in Yaoundé, and against the odds, they qualified on aggregate. The scale of their achievement was summed up by FIFA who described their qualification as “shocking” explaining that the “smallest minnows” had reached the finals.
Making a mark on the international football scene was always going to be difficult for a country the size of the Cape Verde Islands, who only recorded their first competitive win in 1992. It‘s a worn out cliché, but Cape Verde is a small country punching above its weight. Their total population is only around six times bigger than the capacity of the Soccer City stadium in Soweto where they played in the opening game of the 2013 finals. Made up of an archipelago of ten islands the country has only 11,500 registered players at a mere 82 clubs. Cape Verde does not have a single grass football pitch.
Antunes’ recruitment of players for the Islands team was not dissimilar to the approach exploited by Jack Charlton in his time as manager of the Republic of Ireland. Antunes scoured the leagues of Europe to seek out players with Cape Verde family ties, something that makes perfect sense for a country whose nationals and descendants living abroad currently exceed the population of Cape Verde itself. The list of famous names who could have pulled on a Cape Verdean shirt but chose international football elsewhere is larger than one might expect; Nani (Portugal), Patrick Vieira (France), David da Silva (Netherlands) and Henrik Larsson (Sweden) are just a few. The scale of Antunes’ recruitment method is reflected in his squad in South Africa; with 90% of his team playing European club football in countries such as France, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, his approach has clearly worked. Antunes has a number of admirers in the game already, including Jose Mourinho who described him as "an intelligent coach. He has his own ideas, is well-organised, methodical and ambitious. He is a very good coach."
Whilst qualification for the African Cup of Nations 2013 was a zenith for Cape Verde, with Antunes in charge they had already knocked on the door. They narrowly failed to reach the 2012 tournament, missing out on goal difference to Mali, who went on to finish third overall. The fact that Antunes had another opportunity to qualify for the finals only a year later was the result of a decision by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to shift the finals to odd years to avoid playing in the same year as the World Cup.
The 2013 qualifications began with an emphatic 7-1 aggregate win over Madagascar and concluded with the famous victory over Cameroon. "I still do not know how we beat Cameroon," Antunes confessed to local reporters. "It was a dream come true as we have been trying to make the Cup of Nations finals for a long time."
Cape Verde’s achievement in reaching the finals were reflected in January’s FIFA rankings; they are now 70th in the world, one place below Scotland. A decent showing in South Africa could see their stock rise even further. The debutants drew 0-0 with the hosts in that opening game in Soweto and then drew 1-1 with Morocco four days later. They also have Angola in the same section. Cape Verde’s group opponents have between them made 27 appearances in African Cup of Nations’ finals and progression to the knockout stages for the Blue Sharks was always going to be a tough ask. But in Antunes they have a wily manager who appears to have his feet on the ground. Speaking before the tournament, he said “It will be a huge honour for our small country, but we will just try to take it all in and savour the moment”.
Just as I’m finishing this piece on Sunday evening, news filters through that Cape Verde have beaten Angola 2-1 in the final group game, coming from 1-0 down with only nine minutes remaining. The result means that Morocco are eliminated and Cape Verde qualify for the knockout stage along with South Africa. Another major upset, served up by a Cape Verde Islands team managed by an air traffic controller on sabbatical.
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