x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

African Cup of Nations: Tiny Cape Verde are flying under coaching of 'African Mourinho'

Lucio Antunes' stock is soaring after guiding Cape Verde to qualification for South Africa - making them the smallest country ever to take part in the continental championship.

Cape Verde midfielder Marco Soares controls the ball during their friendly against Nigeria.
Cape Verde midfielder Marco Soares controls the ball during their friendly against Nigeria.

Jose Mourinho, the head coach of Real Madrid, has seemed in need of a few friends lately, in these, his dog days in Spain, full of jeers and scepticism. Last month, he received a visitor very happy to call him "The Special One", praise Mourinho's accumulated wisdom and try to absorb some of it. That man is an air-traffic controller from a tiny, remote Atlantic archipelago.

His name is Lucio Antunes and he spent several days with Mourinho in Madrid to talk tactics, strategies and doubtless a little about personal ambition ahead of the African Cup of Nations. He has since been dubbed the "African Mourinho".

It is a tournament, where Antunes will not be issuing semaphore signals to incoming aircraft but vividly directing players of Cape Verde, the minnows who make their debut in the competition on Saturday, in the opening fixture, against hosts South Africa.

Antunes is no longer in aviation, because he is the head coach who has made this tiny nation fly.

In between their sessions and exchanges of ideas Mourinho dutifully told the Capeverdean media he was impressed by the rigour and approach of Antunes, with whom he has several things in common. The 46-year-old Antunes has no great playing career to boast about, but he has a cocksure self-confidence about him.

He and Mourinho also share a common first language, Portuguese. Cape Verde was once a Portuguese colony.

And in football terms it has continued to look like a Portuguese annex for most of the 37 years since its independence. Some good footballers have emerged from its various islands, though the ones who gained a global profile did so in other nations' colours.

There was Oceano Cruz, a battling midfielder at Sporting Lisbon in the 1980s. He played for Portugal. There was Patrick Vieira, whose mother came from Cape Verde but settled in Senegal and later, with her son, in France, who Vieira would captain.

Now there are various, mostly sons of Capeverdean immigrants who travelled the 3,000 kilometres to seek work. Nani, of Manchester United, is a Capeverdean by birth but a Portugal international. His sometime Portugal colleagues, Rolando, of Porto, and Manuel Fernandes, of Besiktas, have a similar heritage.

So does Zelito Fernandes Aguair, or "Lito", the 37 year old who is probably the best witness to the remarkable transformation of Cape Verde as a football force. He is coming to the end of a 20-year professional career in Portugal, where he started living as the eight-year-old son of economic migrants. But unlike Nani or Rolando, he chose to play for his country of birth. Sometimes, that seemed a chore.

"In the old days we would turn up and there would be no training kit," recalls Lito. "We'd travel to away games on shaky military planes and the hotels we were booked into were terrible."

Cape Verde were a soft touch for the traditional heavyweights of Africa in qualifiers in those days. Their spartan national stadium could barely house 9,000 spectators, and the beaches of Praia, the capital, were a nice place for the away team to take a morning run.

When Lito - whom fitness concerns have cruelly denied a place in the Cape Verde squad in South Africa - his national side had barely begun so much as entering their names into World Cup and Nations Cup qualifying competitions, their football federation deeming, for much of the 1990s, the costs were too heavy, the chances of any success too remote to even take part.

What chance did a country of barely 500,000 have against a Nigeria, a Cameroon, or an Egypt?

"I could see sometimes my teammates feeling intimidated by going to certain places," remembers Lito.

The first signs of uplift could be detected in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, a fifth-placed finish in a six-team group.

Then, ahead of the 2012 Nations Cup, the islanders came within one match of reaching the finals, ousted because of an inferior head-to-head record versus Mali.

"What had happened was that standards had become a lot more professional," says Lito. "The Federation really made an effort to raise the level. We have now become a very hard team to beat."

The apotheosis would be the 3-2 aggregate victory over Cameroon, four-time African champions, in the play-off that sent them to the 2013 finals.

Antunes can claim much credit. "He's good at getting the players to believe in themselves, and because he's young, he communicates well with them," says Lito. "Sometimes, that is hard because you also need some distance as a coach, but he knows how to manage that situation."

Antunes, those around him suspect, will have enjoyed the attention his trip to Real Madrid and cosiness with Mourinho, brought him.

"I think it's possible he would like one day to have a club job in Europe," says Lito. "And why not?"

That is a legitimate question. Yet there are few precedents for a coach from Africa exporting his expertise in the way, for instance, so many South Americans do.

Africa's confidence in its own native managers comes under scrutiny at almost every Nations Cup. A majority - just - of the men in charge of the 16 teams in South Africa will be guided by men from outside Africa.

Observing that fact, Stephen Keshi, the Nigeria coach and former captain, spikily remarked: "These white coaches cannot do anything we cannot do. They just come to Africa for the money."

Last Thursday, in Portugal's Algarve, Keshi warmly embraced Antunes, the new boy on the African coaching block, the Mourinho of the mid-Atlantic. Then Keshi saw at first-hand how this rising star of the dugout has marshalled his limited resources to considerable effect.

Cape Verde held Nigeria to a goalless draw in a pre-Nations Cup friendly, another small feather in Antunes's cap.

Come Saturday, in charge of the smallest country ever to play in this tournament, up against the wealthiest nation in Africa at Soweto's Soccer City, Antunes need not be daunted. Cape Verde are solid at the back, they have some devil in attack, especially through winger Ryan Mendes, while "Nhuck" Ramos strikes a menacing free kick.

They no longer cower as they once did.

"We know we can perform under pressure, because of what we did in Cameroon in the play-off, and holding out in the second leg there against a very hostile crowd in Yaounde," says Lito, smiling at the memory of the crowds gathered when the victorious, so-called Blue Sharks returned home after that match.

"The reception we had when we flew home was incredible, loads of fans at the airport even though we landed, many hours later than scheduled, at six in the morning."

Plenty of overtime for the air-traffic controllers of Praia that night, while a whole new frontier had opened for one of them.

 

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