CAF Africa Cup of Nations rookies Cape Verde Islands were seeded fourth in Group A and many expected their stay in South Africa to be completed at the end of the group phase of the competition. But while teams like Morocco, Zambia and Algeria have already embarked on their journey home, the Blue Sharks have qualified for the quarter-finals and will face continental glamour side Ghana on Saturday in Port Elizabeth. FIFA.com talks to the man widely credited with Cape Verde's last few years of unprecedented success: head coach Lucio Antunes.
To concentrate on his footballing duties as coach of the national side - a position he has held since the summer of 2010 - the 46-year-old has had to take extended leave from his job as an air traffic controller at the Nelson Mandela airport in the capital of Praia. In that two-plus year stretch under his guidance, Cape Verde has moved from 108th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 70th and from 26th in the African rankings to 15th. They also came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 2012 AFCON finals and sensationally knocked out four-time champions Cameroon en route to the 2013 finals of the showpiece event of African football.
But qualifying is very different from making an impact once on the big stage, and yet in the opening match of the 29th edition of the competition, the Blue Sharks held the hosts South Africa to a goalless draw. They followed up this promising start by coming within 12 minutes of beating Morocco before settling for a 1-1 draw, and they then sensationally completed their unlikely path to the knock-out stage by coming from behind to beat Angola 2-1. "Our objective has been accomplished. We had to win this match, and we are now through to the quarter-finals," said Antunes after the victory against Angola. "We have played three good games. We came here very determined, and I'm very happy about what we have achieved."
Ghana’s Black Stars are considered one of the favourites in the event, but it is a challenge Antunes is looking forward to. "They were the strongest team in Group B. We are happy to play against them because they are one of the best in Africa and at this stage of the competition we have to come up against such teams. We will now simply keep on working hard and try to win the next game."
A little help from a legend
An important aspect of Cape Verde's success is the strong bond the team and coach enjoy, and the pride they have for their island state. After the victory against the Angolans, Antunes lifted a Cape Verde flag and ran it around the pitch. At the post-match press conference, he was grabbed by his players who had gate-crashed the event and then took him into their midst and sang and danced with him. Once the impromptu celebration was finished, the coach began the press conference by singing a traditional Cape Verdean song and dedicating the victory to the island people.
One of the team’s stand-out figures, Guy Ramos, agrees that team spirit has played an important role in their success. "We are not just a group, we are a family. When you are down, the group lifts you up. I’m happy for the group. It's like a crazy dream. This is our first time in the tournament and already we are through to the quarter-finals. However, this is not a surprise for us because we know what we are capable of and there is no pressure on us," said the Netherlands-based defender, adding that Antunes' managed to bring the best out of players. "He’s a good motivator and he always gets us ready."
Antunes has also received some help from Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, whom he shadowed for a week last year. “Yes, we are very good friends. We have been close for about six or seven months. But our ideas and our football are very different. His style is not my style, and my style is not his style,” said Antunes.
The Portuguese boss, meanwhile, heaped praise on Antunes in a television interview: “He is an intelligent coach. He has his own ideas, is well-organised, methodical and ambitious. He is a very good coach.”
Antunes' contract as national coach ends shortly after the AFCON final on 10 February and - even if unlikely - the Blue Sharks' dream continues all the way and ends with a sensational victory, the coach will be very unlikely to return to his job at the Nelson Mandela airport for a while longer as he would have to take his team to the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil. But even if Antunes is flying high with the Blue Sharks, he says that he will - at some stage - return to his job as air controller. “I don't know which I prefer, coaching or being an air traffic controller. I am definitely going to go back, I just don’t know when."