- Now aged 28, Julio Tavares only turned professional in 2012
- A former regional petanque champion, the Dijon striker once played in goal for a season
- Cape Verde lost their first two qualifying matches for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™
It has been a difficult few months for Julio Tavares. When FIFA.com met up with him, his club, Dijon, were battling against relegation from France's Ligue 1 and his country, Cape Verde, were bottom of Group D in the third and final round of African qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, having lost their opening two matches.
Despite these setbacks, a philosophical Tavares was still able to look on the bright side. “It’s football, so whatever the situation, it’s still such a pleasure to play,” he explained, unaware at the time that he and his club team-mates would eventually retain their place in the French top flight on the final day of the season. “Playing every day remains a real treat. Personally, a few years’ back, I never thought I’d turn professional, so even if we’re fighting against relegation, it’s still a dream to be playing in Ligue 1.”
Indeed, before arriving in Burgundy and signing his first professional contract in 2012, the Cape Verde international had no reason – and almost no desire – to envisage a footballing future for himself. In fact, both his coach and his chairman at Bourg-en-Bresse Peronas, then in the French fourth tier, had to push him to try his luck at a higher level, having recognised his unfulfilled potential.
Precision and concentration
“There are so many players who’ve prepared for a professional career since they were young boys in the academy. That wasn’t the case for me – I just took great enjoyment in playing,” said Tavares, who was at his happiest when kicking the ball around in the local park with his friends in the village of Montreal-la-Cluse, where he even played an entire season in goal at youth level.
Around the same time, he got involved in his life’s other passion: petanque. “I started playing it for fun with a few friends, and l gradually reached a good level,” he said. “Petanque requires precision and concentration, a bit like when you find yourself in front of goal. But that’s about it for comparisons. There are a lot more things that you have to adapt to in football than you do in petanque. You’ve got a lot less time to make a decision.”
While moving from the fourth division to Ligue 2 in the space of four years, Tavares let his feet do the talking at every echelon, piquing the interest of Cape Verde, the island nation that he left at the age of six with his family to settle in France. He made his international debut against Ghana in November 2012, and subsequently took part in the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations – the country’s first appearance at the continental tournament.
Against all the odds, the explosive Tubarões Azuis reached the quarter-finals. “Nobody expected us to do well, despite the fact that we’d knocked out Cameroon in qualifying. People thought that was a fluke and that we were just at the tournament to make up the numbers,” recalled the 28-year-old attacker.
Solid performances in the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup appeared to confirm Cape Verde’s rise up the rankings, but a disappointing Africa Cup of Nations in 2015 and a failure to qualify for the 2017 edition brought the Blue Sharks back down to earth. “We no longer had the element of surprise, and we also took our foot off the pedal somewhat," said Tavares. “We’re not as strong as we were a few years ago. We have to be more united and fight for each other like we did during the successful times.”
If that sense of solidarity is to return to the side, it will need to happen quickly, because the Cape Verdeans have already lost the first two matches – to Senegal and Burkina Faso – of the third round of qualifiers for Russia 2018. There is therefore no margin for error in their upcoming double header versus South Africa.
“We can still qualify, but we know that it’s going to be very tough,” said the Dijon No11. “We’ll have to win practically all of our matches, and in Africa, that is a very difficult thing to achieve, especially away from home. But we’re going to give it our best shot and try to move up the table.”
By way of conclusion, Tavares again returned to the greatest motivational factor in his career: “And most importantly, we’ll try to enjoy ourselves.”