When the 16 best teams in African football assemble in South Africa for the finals of the 29th CAF Africa Cup of Nations in January next year, some very big name-players will be missing - none bigger than Samuel Eto'o. The iconic striker was denied a seventh participation at the showpiece of African football by an unheralded Cape Verde Islands, who edged out the Indomitable Lions 3-2 on aggregate over two legs in the final round of qualifying.
Although Cape Verde midfielder Odair Fortes was injured in the 2-0 first leg win in Praia and so missed the 2-1 defeat in Yaounde, the Stade de Reims player has been a regular for the team since first being capped in 2010 and seems likely to be a starter as the Blue Sharks embark on their first-ever appearance at the AFCON finals. FIFA.com caught up with the 25-year-old and asked him about the upsurge in footballing fortunes of the former Portuguese colony. Fortes believes the team plays a fast, fluid game. "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."
I believe that, with the exception of Côte d'Ivoire, no team in Africa is stronger than we are at the moment.
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."
For Fortes and his team-mates, the reward for hard work came at the end of the 90 minutes in Yaounde. "It is a dream come true. When I was a kid and teenager, everyone in Cape Verde used to support Senegal, which is very close. Now I hope everyone in [eliminated] Senegal will support the Blue Sharks! Though we qualified, we remain highly motivated. We will be in South Africa to win the tournament. I believe that, with the exception of Côte d'Ivoire, no team in Africa is stronger than we are at the moment."
Learning to play on the streets of Praia
Like many African footballers, Fortes started playing the game on the streets. "I played on the streets of the capital Praia. But I was also very keen on futsal, which is very popular in Cape Verde. It helped me improve my skills, and gain in pace and dribbling abilities. My favourite player has always been the great Brazilian Ronaldinho, and I looked up to him as a youngster."
In order to better his chances of playing professional football, Fortes travelled to France with his uncle in 2004, when he was 17. After playing for UJA Alfortville in the French fifth division, he signed for Stade de Reims and has been with them for the last four years. His first international cap came in 2010, when he played in a friendly in Portugal against Guinea-Bissau. "Even before that time I had been in contact with the new staff of the national team, lead by coach Lucio Antunes. I said yes, of course. I have always been called up since then, except of course when I was injured."
Fortes, who plays as a winger, credits the 46-year-old Antunes with Cape Verde's improvement and the collective strength of the team, which is 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.
Antunes will now lead the team into their first-ever appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations and if the team can play as well as they did over the two legs against Cameroon, it could well be that the elimination of the Indomitable Lions is not the only shock they are involved in.