- *Nuno Rocha's brace against South Africa opened the door to Russia 2018 *
- *The midfielder plays in the Russian Premier League for FC Tosno *
- *Cape Verde could become the smallest nation to compete at the World Cup *
It would far-fetched to refer to Cape Verde as one of the footballing powers in Africa, let alone the world. The tiny island nation only joined FIFA in 1986 and first attempted to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ in 2000.
The national team beat Kenya over two legs in the second round of qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, but then made a poor start to the final round with 2-0 losses to Senegal and Burkina Faso. It all changed for the Cape Verdeans during the back-to-back fixtures against South Africa in September. Firstly they managed to secure a hard-fought 2-1 victory on home soil, before travelling to Durban and repeating the same scoreline four days later. Now they share top spot in Group D with Burkina Faso.
The scorer of both goals in the home fixture against South Africa was 25-year-old midfielder Nuno Rocha, bringing his country one step closer to Russia, where he has been playing his club football since the beginning of this season. Three months ago, Rocha joined newly promoted Russian Premier League outfit FC Tosno from Universitatea Craiova in Romania.
"The two goals against South Africa were very important for the team and for me personally," Rocha told FIFA.com. "They gave me great motivation to continue my international career." Until 1 September, Rocha had just managed one goal for his country in three years.
"Obviously, our team isn’t very well known on the world stage," he continued, "but with patience, humility and belief in a better future, we will send out a statement."
To achieve the sensational feat of qualifying for Russia 2018, Cape Verde need to continue their recent positive form in their final two matches against Senegal and Burkina Faso, two decidedly more experienced outfits on the international stage.
"There’s always a possibility," the Tosno midfielder insisted. "Senegal are a strong team, but everything is possible. We have huge motivation and belief in ourselves after the last two victories against South Africa. Then we’ve got the most important game away to Burkina Faso in November. We have to prepare well for it and show what we’re capable of."
Rocha is not the only player from Cape Verde to ply his trade in Russia. Striker Ze Luis has played for Spartak Moscow for more than two years and lifted the league title last season.
"I have a great relationship with Ze," Rocha revealed. "I sought his advice before coming here. He supported me but also warned that playing in Russia is very difficult. I can see this for myself now. In my opinion, the Russian league is one of the toughest in Europe. Adapting to it is not easy, but the hardest thing is learning Russian! I still have problems with it now."
There are a few parallels to be drawn between Rocha’s club and international teams. Tosno were only founded in 2013 but since then have made a rapid ascent to the top flight. This season, they have already proved to be a tough proposition for everyone they have faced.
"I haven’t spent that much time in Russia but I feel good," the Cape Verdean said. "We have a young team. We’re trying to make the supporters happy and we’re doing everything we can to increase our following in the future."
By choosing to come to Russia, Nuno is not only faced with linguistic difficulties but also fatigue travelling to and from Africa for his national-team commitments.
"Of course, it’s a long way to fly and the African countries where we have to play are also located far apart. The journeys wear you out, but you pass the time by chatting with your team-mates. It can be very fun travelling with your friends."
It would be a wonderful fairy tale indeed, if Cape Verde qualify for the World Cup in Russia. It would outstrip Trinidad and Tobago’s achievement – currently the smallest World Cup participant to date – since the Caribbean nation’s population is more than twice as large as the tiny archipelago’s (close to 540,000).
"It would be an unforgettable moment for our country," Rocha concluded. "That’s why our biggest dream is to achieve qualification to the World Cup."
Cape Verde’s remaining qualifiers: Cape Verde-Senegal, 7 October
*Burkina Faso-Cape Verde, 6 November*