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Long, long before he gave his name to football clubs in Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, Vasco da Gama set sail on his first great voyage to the East. His flotilla stopped for repairs and supplies – and, presumably, for the crews to have a kickaround - at the Cape Verde islands. The explorer’s ships then sailed far out into the Atlantic, and found favourable winds and currents to sweep them past Adamastor, supernatural referee of the South, known for a murderous bias against Portuguese mariners. Da Gama pioneered a route that involved sailing up the flank of east Africa, past a large inlet the Portuguese named ‘Bahia de Lagoa’, or the Bay of the Lagoon. Portugal was always on the lookout for Prester John, the African Christian ruler who would be their marquee signing for encounters with the Moors and Turks. Prester John never put pen to paper, but we have a monument to him behind our city hall.

Given the background, it seemed fitting when Port Elizabeth, the Bay of the Lagoon, was named as the venue for the ‘Lusophone Derby’ between Cape Verde and Angola, one of the concluding Group A games at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. How Cape Verde’s ‘Tubaroes Azul’, or Blue Sharks, qualified for the tournament is the stuff of make-believe.

What the islands lack in natural resources, they make up for in human riches refined in the cauldron of history and situation. There is an elegant theory that the Portuguese were the most enlightened colonists because they didn’t mind native wives. It is true that there was little resistance to racial admixture in the societies of Portugal’s colonies. Witness the beautiful, variegated populations of Brazil or Cape Verde.

Industry and discipline were key attributes noted in early nineteenth century Cape Verdean immigrants to New England. The archipelago also seems to produce good footballing genes. Nani hails from the nation’s capital Praia. Henrik Larsson’s father was from the islands. Cristiano Ronaldo has Verdean maternal bloodlines. It occurred to the administrators that they might turn their team’s fortunes around by tapping the resource of eligible players from throughout the diaspora – a shrewd and completely respectable policy. Lucio Antunes, Ilha do Sal’s air traffic controller, was perhaps the best person to choreograph this plan successfully. Used to directing planes from far corners of the globe, he now signalled players who had ties with the islands. In the AFCON qualification campaign, names from the Portuguese, French, Dutch and other European leagues – all either native islanders or from expat communities - featured for the Blue Sharks. A Sal man, Heldon, played a big part in the elimination of Cameroon, and was the top scorer in the team’s successful run to the tournament in South Africa.

It hardly seems possible to speak of Cape Verde without invoking Cesaria Evora, barefoot matriarch of morna, the islands’ unique vocal music. She looked like a hefty, unflappable nanny, whom you could trust with the kids, provided you were willing to overlook the rum and cigarettes. It would have been great to hear her crooning in some smoky Mindelo eatery, before her fame. Cape Verdeans appear to have distilled in their own world view an odd combination of strong faith, and rejection of the idea that life is kind. In Jardim Prometido, Cesaria Evora remembers a paradise lost, but perseveres in her hope for its rediscovery. In her best-known ballad, Sodade, she sings of the tens of thousands who left the islands, and those they left behind. Her tone is deeply wistful, but without a trace of self-indulgence. Continually parting from loved ones and familiar scenes is an experience hardwired into the islanders’ psyche, producing saudade, an intensely nostalgic feeling.

Cesaria Evora passed away in December 2011, too early to see her country’s qualification for the AFCON. She would have been proud, though. These boys are good footballers, she would have stressed, so it was understandable that they had done so well. One senses, too, that she would have approved of the Blue Sharks’ recruitment policy, bearing in mind the themes of emigration and homecoming in her songs.

On the 27th of January, we arrived at the ground at the same time as a phalanx of Angolan supporters kitted out in red, black and yellow. Angola fared a good deal worse than Cape Verde after Portugal cut its colonies loose in 1975. The country’s terrible civil war continued from that time until barely a decade ago. In the large square of trumpet-blowing Angolans were surely those who had seen relatives die or get maimed, and, no doubt, some who themselves had killed. We sat behind the party of beaming Cape Verde islanders. It was easy to understand their wonderment. Their nation’s population is less than half that of Port Elizabeth, yet here they were, starring at the biggest event in Africa. So far, the Blue Sharks had definitely not been out of their depth in draws with South Africa and Morocco.

The players seen as the greatest threat in the Angolan line-up were former Manchester United striker Manucho, currently at Real Valladolid, and Porto’s versatile Djalma Campos, currently on loan to Kasimpasa. Gilberto quickly found Manucho through a long-range free kick, but the tall target-man’s header went just wide. On thirty-two minutes, the industrious Angolans scored when Amaro, his head heavily bandaged, broke down the left-hand flank, and crossed for Mateus. In the ensuing scramble, Cape Verde captain Nando bundled the ball into his own net. The islanders very nearly levelled within three minutes when Julio Tavares deflected the ball just wide of the near post from Babanco’s free kick. With five minutes left in the half, Babanco broke down the left and, with a powerful drive, induced an acrobatic save from Angolan keeper Lama.

At the start of the second period, Antunes brought on both Djaniny and Heldon. A minute later, desperate Angolan defence just kept the ball out from a Tavares header following a corner. An Angolan foray into the opposition box culminated in Manucho’s strike hitting the right-hand upright, but he was flagged off-side anyway. In the sixty-fifth minute, Heldon beat the Angolan wall with a well-placed free kick, which Lama managed to keep out. Marco Soares produced another accurate free kick not long after, Tavares heading over the bar. Cape Verde finally equalised in the eighty-first minute, Gege heading in from a Heldon corner.

Four minutes later, Angola’s Uruguayan manager Ferrin introduced the lively Yano, who immediately threatened with a shot that went just wide of his club teammate Vozinha’s goal. With just three minutes left, all Cape Verdean hopes of advancing seemed to melt away, when another Heldon free kick sailed over the Angolan cross-bar. But then Antunes brought Rambe on for Gege. In the final minute, a Cape Verde counterattack with Mendes at its heart culminated in a threatening cross from substitute Rambe, which Lama could only palm away. The onrushing Heldon buried the ball in the back of the net.

In that instant, Prester John was revealed and Adamastor outwitted. In that instant, the promised garden bloomed. In that instant, all Cape Verdeans, from Rotterdam to Rhode Island, came home. The Cape Verde players and bench went loco. Heldon was submerged under a tidal wave of blue-and-red-shirted bodies. Moments later, when the final whistle blew, Lucio Antunes went on a joyous rampage, wielding the nation’s flag.

The Blue Sharks remained in the Bay of the Lagoon for the quarter-final against Ghana, a game they completely dominated, only to lose two-nil. Ghana scored their first through a disputed penalty. The second goal was via a breakaway in optional time after all the Cape Verdeans, including keeper Vozinha, came up for a corner in hopes of an equaliser. Antunes reflected: “We have just watched a beautiful game of football, but the best team lost. The best team in the competition is now going home so the tournament will lose a little of its shine.” These words might have sounded churlish, but they reflected the sentiments of many.

My thoughts keep returning to the victory lap by Antunes, his epiphanic moment after Heldon’s goal had sent the islanders through to the knock-out stage. With that huge flag held aloft and the stars of his archipelago’s ten islands swirling above his head, he painted as clear a picture of national pride as one will ever see. And yet, what he celebrated had to be something far broader than race, even for the children of his nation’s diaspora, for whom Cape Verde exists more surely in the imagination than in the Atlantic. By turning saudade on its head, he had invigorated a sense of belonging for those blue-eyed people with dark skin. For all of us, with who knows what unrecorded, impure antecedents, he had shown how gifts lie scattered like islands in the sea of our shared humanity. The wonderful show was over then. Somewhere, a fat lady was singing morna.