By Maher Mezahi
It is virtually impossible to write of Cape Verde’s qualification without mentioning their incredible rise to prominence. A decade ago, the Blue Sharks were veritable footballing minnows, having never qualified to a major tournament. The emergence of a golden generation signalled a change of fortunes. Precocious talents emigrated at a young age, benefitting from sophisticated Portuguese footballing infrastructure to improve at an accelerated pace.
The African archipelago did a good job of encouraging exported progress by building two stadia, and adding an element of professionalism. In the past, players often stayed at rundown hotels and the national government could not afford to subsidize a football federation who continued to turn in disappointing performances.
In 2013, Cape Verde qualified for their first ever Africa Cup of Nations and shocked the continent by qualifying to the quarter-finals. The Blue Sharks only lost to Ghana by way of a controversial Mubarak Wakaso penalty kick.
Benefitting from a relatively easy group in qualifying, Cape Verde became the first nation to qualify for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. However, the group they have been drawn into breeds an air of familiarity. Zambia were Group F opponents, who Cape Verde have already played twice in the last six months. DR Congo and Tunisia are also well-known foes having drawn them during 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification.
None of these teams will, therefore, be able to spring a surprise on their opponents. Rather, coach Rui Aguas will need to put his well-documented acumen to effect, devising specific gameplans for each opponent. Expect Group B to be a tightly contested tactical affair.
Rui Aguas must be commended for effecting a continuation in personnel. Most Cape Verde players disputing the 2015 Afcon played the 2013 tournament in South Africa. Vozinha is expected to guard the net, and the only defender won’t return to play in his second consecutive Cup of Nations is former skipper Nando Neves. “The Wolverine’s” departure has opened a space for Stopira to establish himself as Fernando Varela’s partner.
In attack Aguas has a large selection headache. Over the course of qualifying, the Portuguese caretaker experimented with different permutations with varying degrees of success. Julio Tavares and Djaniny are the only bona fide targetmen and both are formidable in the air and with their backs towards goal. When Cape Verde have more of the ball, Aguas has preferred Kuca or Ryan Mendes for increased mobility. Heldon, Garry Rodrigues, Odair Fortes, and Platini can occupy either wing effectively. They are all capable dribblers and goalscoring threats.
Set pieces – Cape Verde have a wealth of resources in attack, but surprising can struggle score from open play. In big matches and tournaments they have displayed a reliance on set-pieces. Star man Heldon of Sporting is a direct threat from free kicks, but his crosses also provide a platform for Julio Tavares or bigger defenders to attack the opposition. Babanco can also dish dangerous crosses from the opposite flank, so that is a trait Group B opponents must be wary of.
Goalkeeping – Unlike Mathlouthi, Mweene, or Kidiaba – his group B counterparts – Vozinha is unknown in Africa. The shot-stopper, playing for Progresso in Angola, is fairly reliable, but not immune to hazardous forays out of his box which often end in embarrassment. The Blue Sharks do a good job of limiting the number of times their backline is breached, but the risk of a calamitous mistake looms large.
Heldon – Heldon’s talent is evident for all to see, in spite of his recent troubles at club level. Last season, Heldon scored 12 goals for Sporting, but he can’t seem to break into Marco Silva’s squad. The diminutive attacking midfielder has played a crucial role for Cape Verde half a decade now, with his threatening free-kicks and mazy dribbling.
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Ryan Mendes – The Lille striker’s ambivalent form this season will strike doubt in the naysayers, but when Mendes is in tip-top shape, there is no stopping a fluid Cape Verde attack. He is undoubtedly Rui Aguas’ X Factor.
Rui Aguas – Tournament success allowed for a prestigious coaching appointment. Rui Aguas was hired after Antunes’ departure, and his CV boasted the likes of managing Braga, Estoril, and Vitoria Setubal. Aguas did not change his predecessor’s methods. The team still plays a compact 4-3-3, but he did extend the country’s scouting network testing the likes of Craiova’s Nuno Rocha, Estoril’s Kuca, and Dordrecht’s Jeffrey Fortes.
Quarter-finalists – Cape Verde face an uphill struggle in qualifying out of Group B. But this group of players have passed sturdier tests. There is no reason to be pessimistic of their chances.