Sharks swimming with the big fish
© AFP

When Lucio Antunes stepped down as coach of Cape Verde club Academico do Sal in July 2010 to take over the national team, the Blue Sharks were ranked 108th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings and 26th in Africa on a total of 261 points. When he left them to take over Angolan club Progresso do Sambizanga three and a half years later, the team had reached their highest-ever ranking. In the January edition of the rankings, Cape Verde is 35th in the world and is considered the fifth-strongest team in Africa with 726 points.

That statistical achievement signifies a magnificent year for the Blue Sharks, one that not only saw them compete at their first-ever finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Much of the credit for the rise in fortunes of the tiny nation of islands has been given to Antunes, who was surely one of just a few national team coaches who continued with his day job whilst being in charge of the national team. To coach his team at the AFCON finals - where they were the smallest-ever country to compete - Antunes had to take time off as an air traffic controller at Nelson Mandela Airport in Praia.

What is even more remarkable about Cape Verde's trip to South Africa for the finals is that the team did not travel simply to make up the numbers, but to make an impact. And that is exactly what they did, drawing their two opening matches against the hosts South Africa and Morocco and then beating rivals Angola to secure an unexpected place in the quarter-finals. At the time Antunes told FIFA.com that they had reach their objective to go through to the next round. "We played three good games. We came to South Africa very determined, and I'm very happy about what we have achieved."

The two draws and the victory against the Palancas Negras took the Blue Sharks to 63rd in the February rankings with 512 points and a further rise in March to 57th with 540 points. Cape Verde's run up the ranking then continued with victories in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers against Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, which saw them ranked 36th in the world in August.

Like a family
Forward Platini, who plays his club football for Cypriot side Omonia told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview that the reason why Cape Verdean football has taken such a leap forward is because they are like a family. "What makes our national team strong is our unity, and with respect, we deserve to be amongst the best teams in Africa because of the work our national team has been carrying out. I believe our national team can become one of the best in Africa because we are showing our quality, and this can only bode well for the future."

Platini believes this process will continue despite Antunes' departure. "Coach Lucio was clearly very important. He was very focused on his work and this was very important for the players. Especially, his motivation of the players was one of the secrets of the national team’s growth. But I don’t think there will be any difference [in the level of play] because our group is very strong. But, of course, we will miss Mister Lucio."

The striker, who has also played professionally in Portugal, scored Cape Verde's first-ever goal at the AFCON finals in the 1-1 draw against Morocco. "I was very happy when I scored because it was a historical moment for Cape Verde football. When I scored I was stunned, and did not quite know how to celebrate, but it felt really good."

For Platini the rise in Cape Verdean football goes beyond the sporting aspect. "This worldwide recognition is very good for our national team and our country." And there is little to suggest why Cape Verde's climb up the rankings should not continue for a little bit longer.