It has been a remarkable decade of growth for the national team from Cape Verde Islands. This year marked just their 25th year of affiliation with FIFA, and the Blue Sharks were ranked as low as 182nd in the world in April of 2000.
There have been ups and downs in the intervening years, but a steady trajectory of growth has them now at a best-ever 66th in October's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings after a jump of 25 places. Unfortunately, there is a bitter-sweet side to that success for the islanders, who are now 14th in Africa. The climb in the rankings is secondary to their performances and results in qualifying for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, a campaign that ultimately ended in heartbreak for Tubaroes Azul.
Despite being pace-setters in Group A, which also included Mali, Zimbabwe and Liberia, Cape Verde lost two of their last three matches to end up even with the Malians on ten points from six contests. They missed out on a first-ever appearance at the Cup of Nations finals based on two tie-breakers. First, they had a worse head-to-head goal difference against Mali for the top of the table spot, and second, in the quest to earn automatic qualification as one of the two best second-place teams, they finished behind Sudan only on goal difference.
Sharks take a few bites
Failure to qualify was a body blow for the Sharks, who had never come that close to reaching a major international finals before but have now served notice to the bigger nations on the continent that they are not to be overlooked. In the first match of 2012 qualifying, they broadcast their ambitions when they stunned favoured Mali 1-0 in September of 2010.
Their form in the capital Praia never wavered as they went on to beat Liberia 4-2 and Zimbabwe 2-1 last month. A scoreless away draw in Harare seemed to indicate greater possibilities were possible, but a 1-0 defeat to the Lone Stars shook confidence before a 3-0 dismantling by Mali left the islanders with too much ground to make up on the final matchday.
Despite the near-miss, Cape Verde proved a balanced team with a good mix of technical and physical prowess, and they promise to be a handful in qualifying for both the 2013 CAN and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. They will play Madagascar home-and-away in the former, and in the latter, they open their campaign away to Sierra Leone and then host Tunisia in June of next year. 2012 CAN co-hosts Equatorial Guinea complete the section, which should be a battle to see who can keep pace with the Carthage Eagles.
New era, new talent
While they lack any big name standouts, the Sharks have a range of emerging talent scattered throughout Europe, some of which qualify for the team through the Diaspora. Well-known domestic coach Lucio Antunes sees this European experience as the biggest change for the team in the recent past. Much-travelled striker Lito is again expected to help lead the line, but the diminutive 36-year-old has undoubtedly lost a step or two of quickness.
Up-and-coming forward Heldon Nhuck Ramos was top scorer in CAN qualifying for Cape Verde, and the Maritimo star, 23, is one to watch in the future. Winger Valdo is also now in the mix, and the Spanish-born Levante player should give some more experience to a midfield that also features Babanco, France-based Odair Fortes and Sparta Rotterdam’s Toni Varela. Nando is the veteran of the backline, and a pair of young players, Stopira and Fernando Varela, won solid reviews in defence.
Although the no-nonsense Antunes is due to leave his post in March of next year, the part-time coach who typically works as an air traffic controller may well be persuaded to stay given how much progress has been made since he took over the team almost 18 months ago. Previously an assistant to former Portuguese player Joao de Deus in qualifying for South Africa 2010, Antunes is well-placed to assess Cape Verdean football given that he has also worked in the domestic league and with the youth international teams. Whether he stays or not, more progress like the last decade could see the country of just half-a-million people living up to their voracious nickname.