Rustenburg – Cape Verde stunned the football world on Sunday night as they became the smallest country ever to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals, let alone for the tournament itself.
They are coached by Lucio Antunes, with the 46-year-old on long leave from his normal day job as an air traffic controller at the country's main airport, while he manages Cape Verde's Nations Cup adventure.
“It is far easier to be a football coach than an air traffic controller because you have enormous responsibility when there are so many planes flying around,” Antunes has said regarding his normal occupation.
Following their dramatic last minute 2-1 win over Angola in Port Elizabeth on Sunday, Antunes dedicated the victory to the people of Cape Verde.
“My team and I dedicate this victory to the wonderful people of the Cape Verde Islands,” the delighted coach said after the match, before singing a few bars of 'The Biography of a Crioulo', a local song of happiness related to the type of Portuguese spoken around the nation of 15 islands and islets.
“It is a traditional song. I dedicate it to all the people at home,” he said. “We achieved our objective, we knew it was going to be difficult but we kept at it.”
“We knew what was happening in the other match between South Africa and Morocco (a 2-2 draw) and that's why I told the team to attack until the end and it paid off. It also started raining and that blessed our effort.”
Antunes has played a leading role in his country's unlikely path to the quarter-finals, with the Cape Verde coach shadowing the 'Special One' Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid for one week before the tournament.
“Mourinho is very friendly with the president of Cape Verde so when we qualified, the president spoke to him, and Mourinho then invited me to Real Madrid for one week,” Antunes said before the tournament started.
Antunes attended five training sessions and two matches, but the most important aspect of coaching he gleaned off Mourinho was the clarity with which he communicated with the players and his technical staff.
Appointed national coach in July 2010, Antunes sought to bring in players who had links to the islands, be it from their childhoods or their paternal links, to expand his player pool.
However, with the Cape Verde football federation unable to pay for expensive flights to Europe for Antunes to watch them in action, he had to rely on DVDs and television to deduce what options he had available.
As a result, the majority of players within the Cape Verde squad play their football overseas.
“We've got beautiful players, talented players,” veteran Cape Verde captain Nando said after his team had stormed into the press room after the Angola match in celebration.
“Now we're trying to go as far as possible.”
Cape Verde might have not been rated before the tournament but in beating Cameroon to qualify for South Africa, they showed inner steel which was again on display in the tournament's opening game against South Africa.
Cape Verde drew the game 0-0 in front of a partisan South African crowd, and created the best chances.
If that was not enough, the nation of half a million people, with its diaspora around the world even larger, took the lead against Morocco in their second game in the 35th minute via the aptly named Platini before Morocco leveled the scores in the 78th minute.
It left the islanders with the task of needing to beat Angola to progress to the quarter-finals.
Angola took the lead initially in the 33rd minute after a own goal by Nando, and with Morocco leading South Africa in Durban for much of their concurrent clash, Cape Verde appeared to be on their way home.
Fernando Varela changed that in the 82nd minute, bundling home a header to equalize but with Morocco and South Africa level at 2-2, the tournament debutants would have been eliminated on goal scored.
History was made in the 90th minute when Heldon smashed in a cross parried by Angolan goalkeeper Lama. Antunes immediately ran down the touchline in celebration.
The greatest legacy of their achievements in South Africa perhaps will be the positive image created about the nation's football, which might encourage other exiles to turn out for their country.
“It's true that in the recent past there have been several players, for example Nani, Eliseu and Gelson Fernandes, with Cape Verdean roots who have played for other countries,” Antunes said earlier in January before their opening match against South Africa.
“Now, though, we feel that qualification for South Africa 2013 and the progress this has generated has given people a much more positive image of us. I therefore believe that representing our national team is an increasingly interesting proposition for our most talented players.”
One wonders whether Antunes will ever return to the air traffic control tower given his and his country's remarkable success. – Sapa-dpa