By this time next year Lucio Antunes will be back at his job as an air traffic controller at Sal Airport, among the most westerly outcrops of the African continent. But before his 18-month hiatus with the Cape Verde Islands national team is over, the part-time coach wants to ensure his island nation is flying high.

Still top of Group A in 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying after four matches, despite a narrow loss in Liberia last weekend, the island archipelago has high hopes of a first-ever appearance at the final tournament. “We are still in top place even though we lost and this means we are still confident. It is in our hands,” the youthful coach on the verge of history exclusively told “All the people on the islands, but even more importantly the players, are believing that we can do it. Defeat in our last game might have dipped the confidence, but the most important thing is that my players and I are very positive.”

Cape Verde have in recent times shrugged off their image as one of African football’s minnows and threatened to qualify for a major tournament. But, according to Antunes, never has the sense of expectation been as high as it is now for the Tubaroes Azul (Blue Sharks). “It’s the first time it has been as feverish as this, but we have to put a check on it so that people do not run away with themselves. We have to control the expectations so that it does not impact negatively on the players,” said the coach.

We’ve been the top side in the group since we began the qualifying campaign and we want to ensure we finish like that.

Lucio Antunes on his side's ambitions in AFCON qualifying

However, Antunes also believes that for the islanders the weight of demand is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a country where just over a decade ago few had much hope or belief in the national team. “I think it’s good for the players to learn what to do under pressure,” he said.

Crunch match looming
Defeat in Monrovia has left the Cape Verdians on seven points, with a single-point lead in Group A: just ahead of favourites Mali, two ahead of Zimbabwe and three ahead of Liberia. All four teams have a chance to qualify for the finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and the Cape Verdians travel next to Bamako in September for a crunch game against Mali which could settle the outcome of the group.

“This will be the big match for us, and I think for Mali too,” he explained. “It’s a group where it is equally hard to win at home as it is to win away, but you can be assured we will be doing our best to go out and win. We’ve been the top side in the group since we began the qualifying campaign and we want to ensure we finish like that.”

Cape Verde continue to dip into the country’s large Diaspora across the world for players. “We now have some 90 per cent of our squad members who are playing at clubs in Europe - in Portugal, France, Spain, Holland and other countries. These are professional players who are desperate to show what they can do at the Nations Cup finals. It has been so easy to work with them because of their experience and their desire.”

Antunes, who has worked his way through the coaching ranks at the Cape Verdian Football Federation, took over from Joao de Deus as coach at the start of the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. He took long leave from his job controlling the airways around one of Africa’s biggest transit points and has spent almost a year in the post now on a full-time basis. He had worked previously as the assistant to the Portuguese coach De Deus in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign and has coached the U-21 side since 2007, winning gold at the Lusophone Games in Portugal two years ago. He is also the former coach of Academico do Sal, former champions of the island nation.

Should the Cape Verdians qualify for next year’s continental finals, Antunes will become his country’s most successful coach. But he will not be heading on up the footballing ladder after that, but rather back to his air traffic control tower. “My job is my job, I have to go back,” he admitted.