Cape Verde’s defiance of all odds in the 2023 African Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast is one for the book makers.. They beat four-time African champion Ghana, held seven-time African champion Egypt to a draw, and blew away Mozambique with three unanswered goals.
One might say it is a fluke, but check the records; this is their fourth African Cup of Nations and over the previous editions they have participated in, ‘The Blue Sharks’ as fans fondly call the national team, have shown a slow, but steady climb into football relevance on the continent.
To understand why and how this football ascendency is happening, it is best to take a journey to the island archipelago of 500,000 people and a semi-professional domestic league.
Cape Verde was discovered by Portuguese settlers nearly 600 years ago and was colonized for trade. The island did not have a football team until three years after its independence in 1978. It was not until 1982 that they joined the Confederation of African Football, CAF and FIFA; they participated in their first major tournament almost decades later.
In between this long wait, Cape Verde supported world football by providing prominent players who would lace their boots for other countries.
Footballers like Henrik Larsson of Sweden, Luis Nani of Portugal and Patrick Vieira of France can trace their ancestry to Cape Verde, and these are just three out of many who chose to play for other nations.
This decision to play for another country was just one of the many obstacles in the way of a Cape Verde football dream team. Other obstacles, like limited resources to invest in football and a small population to discover football talent, also added to Cape Verde’s dilemma.
By 2000, the country was ranked 182nd in the FIFA world rankings and had never qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations. Still, the football culture built over the years, guided by their love for the sport, helped Cape Verde win the now-defunct Amilcar Cabral Cup, a competition between West African countries.
This marked the turning point for this football-loving nation.
Six years later, ahead of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, former national coach Alexandre Alhinho came up with a bright idea. Many players with Cape Verdean roots and football skills were scattered throughout Europe, so Alhinho began recruiting these ‘foreign’ players.
Coaches like Ricardo a Rocha, Joao de Deus and Lucio Antunes also adopted this system and expanded it to include every corner of the globe.
These players are born or raised in countries in Europe and other parts of the world where they have access to better facilities and structure, and they have brought their talent back over the years to elevate Cape Verde’s football profile on the continent and in the world.
The return of Cape Verdean talent has helped the country make three appearances in the Africa Cup of Nations finals.
Although they are yet to conquer the tournament’s knockout stages, despite a surprising debut and promising qualification run in 2013 and 2021, they were ousted in the round of 16 both times. Their 2015 campaign proved less successful, with only draws at the group stage.
At this year’s AFCON, the coach cast his net far and wide for ‘Blue Sharks’, to assemble the most ‘international’ team in Ivory Coast, with 14 players born and raised in Europe and 11 born in Cape Verde.
The 25 players come from 25 different clubs in 16 countries. The countries include Spain, France, Italy, Ireland, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Russia, USA. Only one plays his club football in Cape Verde.
Though not yet champions, Cape Verde’s consistency and strides of success in Ivory Coast suggest a team that could continue winning and win this year’s AFCON.
In football, anything is possible.