Cape Verde's fairytale rise shows no sign of slowing
Cape Verde stole football fans' hearts when they reached the 2013 African Nations' Cup (ANC) quarterfinals. For a country with a population of just 500,000 and a team with a coach whose day job was an air-traffic controller, their achievement was a stunning example of punching above one's weight.
Their World Cup dreams were shattered, though, when they had to give up their place in the final round of qualification for the 2014 tournament because of their own error. Despite topping their group, they fielded a player who should have been benched because he was suspended for their final match against Tunisia. The result was awarded to the North Africans, who went on to play Cameroon in the two-legged playoffs. Given that Cape Verde had tamed the Indomitable Lions to qualify for the 2013 ANC, Cape Verde may have fancied their chances of making history and heading to Brazil. Instead, they went nowhere.
But they are rising again, as they hold the top spot in qualification for the 2015 ANC and have also broken back into the top 10 best teams on the African continent. The latest FIFA charts also put Cape Verde at 41 -- a jump of 33 places from the last list -- catapulting them back to the front pages of the African game as a result.
It's not that they haven't been there before -- under Lucio Antunes they went from 108th to 35th place in three years -- but getting back there hints at a longer term improvement as they enter a second phase in their footballing journey. Antunes is no longer in charge after taking up a full-time job with Angolan club Progresso Sambizanga in December last year, and his departure threatened to destabilise the structure.
Two months after Antunes left, Cape Verde had not yet found a replacement and named his assistant Felisberto Cardoso and geography professor Men Ramires to take charge of the team for a friendly against Luxembourg. The resulting goalless draw was neither an endorsement nor a slight on the duo's work, but it was clear Cape Verde needed some direction.
In August, they appointed Portugal's Rui Aguas on a two-year deal. His unveiling received a mixed reaction because the Cape Verde national team had already had a number of Portuguese and Brazilian coaches, including Carlos Alhinho, Ricardo da Rocha and Joao de Deus. None of them managed to lift Cape Verde out of middling positions in the world rankings. But Aguas, who is in his first job in charge of a national team, has already had a sizzling start with victories over both Niger and Zambia.
The Niger win is notable because it was achieved away from home, where Cape Verde have struggled in the past. Apart from the 2013 ANC, they had won only one match on the road in the past six years, in Antananarivo against Madagascar.
But the big result was a 2-1 win against 2012 ANC champion Zambia. 23-year-old striker Ze Luis scored the opening goal. Based at Braga, Luis withdrew from the ANC squad last year for personal reasons, and his return to the national team will be a boost going forward. He has played only nine matches so far and has already netted twice. With players like him, Cape Verde seem to be getting the balance right, and all indications are that the fairytale is continuing. It may be even more magical the second time around.