Later this week, Cape Verde’s national football team will make their long-awaited debut appearance at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations – beginning their campaign with the opening match against tournament hosts South Africa at Johannesburg’s Soccer City Stadium.

With the total population of their country only around six times bigger than the capacity of Soccer City, coach Lucio Antunes and his players could certainly be forgiven a sense of surrealism as they step out onto the same pitch where Spain and the Netherlands contested the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ final.

“It will be a huge honour for our small country, but we will just try to take it all in and savour the moment,” beams Antunes, whose Blue Sharks (as Cape Verde’s national team are known) are set to be the smallest minnows yet to compete in Africa’s continental finals – even smaller than Equatorial Guinea, whose qualification for the 2012 edition came automatically as tournament co-hosts.

Nor is size the only obstacle that Cape Verde have had to overcome. Spread out in a horseshoe formation of 15 islands and islets and located some 570 km off Africa’s west coast, the country has a punishingly arid landscape which belies the 'Green Cape' of its name. Indeed, with natural grass scarce and freshwater even scarcer, Cape Verde cannot even lay claim to a single grass football pitch.

The harshness of life on the islands, which were originally settled by 15th century Portuguese traders as a supply point for passing ships and later served as a base for slave trading, has also led to large-scale emigration over the years – to the extent that many more Cape Verdeans can now be found in Europe, the Americas and mainland Africa than on the islands themselves.

Talents lost
Among this widespread diaspora are a striking number of top footballers who have gone on to play for their adopted countries rather than their ancestral home. Unsurprisingly, Portugal has benefited most, with a long line of Cape Verdeans having chosen to pull on the red strip.

At the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Manchester United’s Cape Verde-born star Nani was one of three members of the original Portugal squad with roots in the tiny African country, while two other players of Cape Verde heritage (Besiktas midfielder Manuel Fernandes and Málaga winger Eliseu) only narrowly missed out after making it onto Portugal’s 30-player long list for the tournament.

It is in the personality of Cape Verdeans to fight precisely because of the obstacles they face in their daily lives.

Mario Semedo, Cape Verde Football Association President

Switzerland’s Gelson Fernandes, who scored the only goal of the alpine nation’s shock group stage win over Spain at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, is another Cape Verde-born player, while the father of former Sweden great Henrik Larsson also hailed from the archipelago.

Nearby (or at least relatively close) Senegal have also snapped up several internationals who could have turned out for Cape Verde, including current national team members Jacques Faty and Mickaël Tavares. Patrick Vieira, the Senegalese-born star who went on to win the World Cup with France in 1998, also has Cape Verdean ancestry.

While not all of these 'lost' players were born in Cape Verde, it still seems remarkable that so many top stars can have such strong connections to a tiny cluster of rugged outcrops in the Atlantic Ocean – although some believe that the phenomenon may in fact be explained by the islands’ isolated nature.

“Our kids start football at an early age and sometimes in difficult and adverse conditions,” points out long-time Cape Verde Football Association President Mario Semedo. “It is in the personality of Cape Verdeans to fight precisely because of the obstacles they face in their daily lives.

“Under these conditions, qualities like hard work and dedication are essential, and the recipe for our success in football is made up of those ingredients.”

Talents regained
In the past, those ingredients clearly benefited the national teams of other countries much more than they did Cape Verde, but the country’s success in qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations demonstrates how things have started to change.

A major turning point came in April 2000, following the country’s first attempt to qualify for a FIFA World Cup. While trying to work out how the team could do better next time, Semedo and his colleagues started to think about the thousands of Cape Verdeans living overseas and how they could entice them back to play for the Blue Sharks. Suddenly, the talent drain that had been seen as a purely negative influence in the past was being considered as an opportunity – prompting an ambitious scouting programme that encompassed not only the traditional hunting grounds of Portugal and Senegal but also expat communities in France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the USA.

Since then, Cape Verde’s reliance upon foreign-based players has reached a point where not a single representative of the islands’ amateur football league made it into the squad called up in November for a Cup of Nations warm-up match against Ghana.

I think we have enough skill to take the game to our opponents, and we also have a good mix of generations.

Odaïr Fortes, Cape Verde midfielder

While around half of the current squad members are based in Portugal’s top division, others play their club football in locations as varied as France, Romania, Cyprus or Angola. Some are Cape Verde-born players, such as SC Braga striker Zé Luis and Lille forward Ryan Mendes, who learned their trade on the islands before making big moves abroad, while others have come in the other direction – born overseas and establishing themselves as footballers before being asked to play for Cape Verde.

“I think we have enough skill to take the game to our opponents, and we also have a good mix of generations,” says attacking midfielder Odaïr Fortes, a regular with French top division side Stade de Reims who is keen to return to the international fray after missing both legs of Cape Verde’s shock qualifying win over Cameroon due to injury.

“Our captain (Nando) is 34, but is as enthusiastic as a 20-year-old, and then we have lots of up-and-coming players from Portuguese and Eastern European clubs and also the very promising Ryan Mendes. When we were growing up, everyone in Cape Verde used to support Senegal as they were the closest ‘big team’. Now that we have qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations, and Senegal have not, I hope that their supporters will be rooting for us!”

Home-grown hopes
While overseas talent scouting has clearly played a large part in Cape Verde’s football development strategy, it is not the only secret to their success, as the country’s football association has also been active in developing opportunities for the players still based on the islands.

Working together with FIFA’s Member Associations & Development Division, the country was one of the first in Africa not only to embrace an artificial turf support programme which has since seen a staggering 15 pitches built across the islands, but also to host international matches on the surface, with the Estádio da Várzea in the capital Praia being used immediately after its completion to stage 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

“It was those pitches that first made it possible for us to really grow football in Cape Verde – both in terms of the national teams and also in terms of the domestic league,” Semedo told FIFA World.

Cape Verde have also taken full advantage of FIFA’s Goal development programme, with the approval of three projects in the space of six years helping to fund the association’s national headquarters and technical centre in Praia, the construction of an artificial turf pitch at the centre and the creation of a regional technical centre on the island of São Vicente, which is currently being built.

I understand why some Cape Verdeans used the opportunities they had to represent bigger countries but I have been pleasantly surprised by the talent coming through now.

Pedro Pele, former Cape Verde defender

Over the past five years, the association has also allocated more than USD 250,000 of its FIFA Financial Assistance Programme funds to the development of its senior domestic competitions, with around USD 160,000 also being used to develop youth football. Six FIFA refereeing courses have also been held on the islands since 2007 as part of efforts to further boost standards in the domestic game.

“When you look at how the association is improving the standard of football management at home and combine that with the experiences that the European-based players are bringing back with us, it can only help to develop the next generation of young talents,” insists former Cape Verde defender Pedro Pele, who enjoyed a brief spell in the English Premier League with West Bromwich Albion and still plays in the country’s lower leagues for Hayes & Yeading United.

“I understand why some Cape Verdeans used the opportunities they had to represent bigger countries,” Pele adds. “But I have been pleasantly surprised by the talent coming through now in Cape Verde, and if we continue to create a strong national squad then our team will be just as desirable to play for as any other.”

The game’s administrators remain realistic about the challenges they still face, with the professionalisation of the domestic league seen as one long-term goal that could help raise standards and also bring additional revenues to the clubs who do lose talented players to overseas leagues. Despite the ongoing difficulties, however, those in charge of the domestic game seem confident that the national team’s qualification for South Africa 2013 can act as a springboard for future successes.

“The future is very promising for Cape Verdean football,” insists Semedo. “We’re in the process of enlarging the development of young footballers at various youth levels and are constantly working on developing other key areas, such as coaching, refereeing and administration, and I believe this investment will pay off massively in the years to come.”