In just a few days time, Cape Verde Islands will celebrate a major milestone in their footballing history. On Saturday 19 January, this modest nation of barely half a million inhabitants will go up against South Africa in the opening game of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2013. The setting will be Johannesburg’s Soccer City, a venue that could hold one sixth of the entire Cape Verdean population.

Defying the odds to qualify for the continental championship was all the more remarkable when you consider that there is scarcely any natural grass to play on across this arid archipelago of 15 islands and islets. Curious to discover the secret of their success, sought out coach Lucio Antunes for an exclusive interview. What does football mean to Cape Verde?
Lucio Antunes: Nowadays it’s the leading sport. A decade ago, when our chances of reaching a major tournament were almost non-existent, the fans here supported countries like Nigeria, Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire. Today everyone from ministers of state to farmers are talking about football and our national team.
With a population of around 500, 000, Cape Verde is the smallest ever country to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. What's been the secret?
Truth be told, there are no secrets. Our federation has been working successfully in developing players as part of the ‘Cape Verde 2008-2014’ project. This has been a global effort. As well as the work carried out by our federation, the success of the national team owes much to the development projects implemented by FIFA. Specifically, the construction of a Technical Centre in Praia and the completion of a significant number of artificial pitches have enabled the game to be much more widely practiced here.

With limited resources our country has achieved a great deal, not just in football, but in other areas like education and health.

Lucio Antunes

Do you see Cape Verde as a model for other countries that face difficulties in the development of their footballing infrastructures?
Yes, I think Cape Verde is a good example, both in footballing terms and in general. With limited resources our country has achieved a great deal, not just in football, but in other areas like education and health.

This Saturday you’ll make your Cup of Nations debut against hosts South Africa at Soccer City Stadium, the same venue that hosted the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. What are your expectations?
Just being part of the tournament is already a great achievement for us. Participating in the opening game, with all the media exposure that this entails, is a privilege – albeit one that requires us to be up to the occasion. We have a great deal of respect for South Africa, who will be playing at home in front of more than 80,000 fans, but we’ll represent our country with pride.

What are your hopes for Cape Verde after South Africa 2013 and how can you capitalise on the experience to further develop football in your country?
Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be very difficult, but we’ll fight every step of the way to get there. We also need to keep working together as a team, and the federation must continue its work unearthing talented players and providing them with the optimum conditions to develop.

In the past, various players of Cape Verdean origin left your shores only to star for other national teams. To what extent do you think that the team’s qualification for this Cup of Nations will help reverse this trend and convince people to stay in your country?
It’s true that in the recent past there have been several players, for example Nani, Eliseu and Gelson Fernandes, with Cape Verdean roots who have played for other countries. Now, though, we feel that qualification for South Africa 2013 and the progress this has generated has given people a much more positive image of us. I therefore believe that representing our national team is an increasingly interesting proposition for our most talented players.