Debutants Cape Verde Islands are the team no one beyond the west coast archipelago expected to reach the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.

Paired with four-time champions Cameroon for a place at the finals, the island nation built a two-goal home advantage and even a 2-1 return-match reverse could not deprive them of a ticket to South Africa.

When the Blue Sharks returned to capital city Praia at six in the morning, they were greeted by thousands of supporters celebrating the greatest football achievement in the history of the former Portuguese colony.

Coach Luis Antunes, on long leave from his job as an air traffic controller, admits he still pinches himself occasionally to check that a country of little more than 500,000 people is going to the African football showcase.

"I still do not know how we beat Cameroon," he 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."

After just missing out on a place at the 2012 tournament in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea, the Sharks will face hosts South Africa, Morocco and Angola in Group A with two quarter-finals places at stake.

"We are going to work hard and do our best in the competition. Playing in our first Africa Cup and playing in the first match is good for the players, the coaches and the country."

High-flying Islanders
Although most neutral observers believe former champions South Africa and Morocco and Angola will slug it out for the round-of-eight places, Cape Verde are ranked 15 in Africa, making them the highest placed of the four challengers.

Morocco are two places behind the islanders, Angola six and South Africa eight, and Antunes is planning to silence critics who consider his outfit the likely whipping boys.

"All the pressure will be on South Africa in the opening match. We are coming to play good football and if we make the knock-out phase it will be another remarkable achievement."

Netherlands-based defender Guy Ramos shares the dreams of his coach and says outstanding team spirit could take a team skippered by veteran left-back Nando further than many expect.

"We play well as a unit and fight hard for each other. Everyone comes back to help out defensively and that is a great sign. The current squad allows us to dream a little bit."

Toni Varela, another Cape Verdean playing in the Netherlands, and Cyprus-based Marco Soares pull the midfield strings while Djaniny from Portuguese outfit Oldhanense is a potential threat up front.

Only one local star - reserve goalkeeper Rilly - made a squad otherwise composed of footballers playing in Angola, Cyprus, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and Romania.