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 By Mark Gleeson

Cape Verde emerging as a power in African football

Cape Verde are hoping to reach their first World Cup in 2018 in Russia.
Cape Verde are hoping to reach their first World Cup in 2018 in Russia.

FIFA's latest rankings have the Cape Verde Islands up to 33rd place in world football and a remarkable second on the African continent, below the Ivory Coast but above the other heavyweights of the continent, like Algeria, Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria. It is a most extraordinary achievement for one of the continent's smallest countries.

The island archipelago has a population of just over 500,000, have only a semi-professional domestic league and had not even competed in major tournament qualifiers until some 20 years ago.Yet they find themselves among the continent's elite after qualifying for the last two African Nations' Cup finals and coming close to World Cup qualification for Brazil, before being stymied by a sanction for fielding an ineligible player.

Cape Verde, along with Algeria, are among African national teams drawing more from their diaspora. For example, it is asserted that there are several times as many people of Cape Verdean descent elsewhere than on the islands. Notably Portugal, the east coast of the United States, France, Luxembourg and in the harbour city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where they work on the many ships in the Dutch city.

It was with those destinations in mind that 12 years ago former national coach Alexandre Alhinho began a recruiting process, looking to strength the national team ahead of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. They were then a lowly 129th in the rankings.

He travelled extensively in Europe in the months leading up to start of qualifying in 2004, seeking to persuade players of Cape Verdean origin to join the national team.

Alhinho had his sights set on Olympique Marseille captain Manuel dos Santos, who had helped his club reach the UEFA Cup final against Valencia, but the defender eventually could not be persuaded. However, others like Boavista striker Cafu, who had originally held out hopes of making the Portuguese national side, eventually agreed to play for "Tubaroes Azul" (Blue Sharks) and made a quick and positive impact.

"We have had to negotiate with these players because they don't know our land, our country Cape Verde," explained Alhinho to Mzansi Football in 2004.

"We have had to talk a lot to them but things have been going very good. I just hope that they will be able to make it and come and join us."

Players from Europe began to throw in their lot. For many it was a unique opportunity to feature in a national team and harbour World Cup dreams. Successive coaches like Ricardo a Rocha, Joao de Deus and Lucio Antunes continued the search for Cape Verdean connections worldwide and today's team have largely been born and/or raised in the better facilities and structure of European football, thereby emerging better polished players and elevating the Cape Verde's profile from "tiny island nation" to African football power.

In 2013 they became the smallest country to ever quality for the African Nations' Cup finals, their population even less than the 2012 co-hosts Equatorial Guinea. A fairytale rise began by beating four-time winners Cameroon in the qualifiers in a result that was no fluke. Cape Verde had a lead from the first leg but few expected Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, with players like Samuel Eto'o and Alex Song, to be troubled in turning around a 2-0 deficit in the second leg in Yaounde -- except for the Cape Verdean team, that is.

Cape Verde came out and took the game to Cameroon, deservedly going ahead courtesy of curling free kick from Heldon Ramos. Although Cameroon equalised soon after, Cape Verde continued to look self-assured and, at times in the second half as the crowd were willing Cameroon forward, it was the islanders who silenced them and frustrated their hosts by keeping possession for long periods of time, almost nonchalantly passing the ball among themselves to frustrate their much vaunted opponent. In the end, they lost the return leg 2-1 but qualified 3-2 on aggregate in a sensational result.

They went on to further stun the tournament in South Africa by reaching the quarterfinals. Two years later they were back again, this time in Equatorial Guinea, and were unfortunate to be eliminated at the end of the first round without losing a game.

Now they sit well-placed for the 2017 finals and are already through to the group phase of Africa's World Cup qualifiers for Russia 2018. Meanwhile, their FIFA ranking keeps improving.

Cape Verde only joined FIFA in 1986 and until 1992 they only played in the regional Amilcar Cabral Cup competition for countries in the west of Africa. In 1992 they competed in the African Nation's Cup finals qualifiers for the first time and 10 years later took their first tilt at the World Cup -- in the qualifiers for the 2002 finals in Japan and South Korea.

Now, as the draw for the Russia 2018 qualifiers awaits, Cape Verde will be among those countries many of the other protagonists will want to avoid.

Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.

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