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Views: 380, Date:08/Sep/2016

Cape Verde's remarkable journey to the top of African football

(CNN)Cape Verde, a remote Atlantic archipelago, is not the most likely candidate for soccer supremacy. And yet, remarkably, the island nation has risen from obscurity to the point where, until a few months ago, they were the top ranking team in Africa.

But how? The obstacles standing in the way of the archipelago, 600 km off the west coast of mainland Africa, are many. The standard of league football isn't that high and resources are limited -- for instance teams based in Santiago, the largest island, all play in the same, old-fashioned stadium. Unlike football-mad Nigeria, with a population of 181 million, Cape Verde only has 500,000 people from which to source footballing excellence.
In April 2000, Cape Verde were languishing at 182nd in the FIFA world rankings. They'd never qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations. Known as the Blue Sharks, in reality they were minnows among the big fish of African soccer. But then Cape Verde won the now defunct Amilcar Cabral Cup, a competition between West African countries, and the ball started rolling.
Over the following 14 years Cape Verde moved into ascendancy, due in part to the -- sometimes literal -- groundwork of FIFA initiatives. In 1998 the nation had no grass pitches -- now there are 25.
"They made great contributions to the development of football in Cape Verde," explains former president of the Cape Verde FA Mario Semedo. "FIFA projects were indispensable in fostering the soccer culture of the region."
It's a soccer culture that humbled former colonial masters Portugal 0-2 in March 2015 and, but for fielding a suspended player, would have taken them to the World Cup in Rio in 2014.
Caught in the dragnet of national team success is a generation of children hoping to emulate their idols. From Semedo to coach Jose Maria Lobo to national team goalkeeper Nilson Batilha, all agree injecting money into grassroots soccer is key.
"Cape Verde is producing excellent players from the senior level down to the youth level," says Batilha. "There is a lot of talent amongst youth and if we don't invest in youth, we won't be able to have good players later."
Another challenge is talent retention. Batilha is one of the few national team players still based in Cape Verde. Most of his teammates have traveled abroad to play in other leagues in pursuit of glory.
This exodus is mostly keenly felt in those who have turned away from the Cape Verdean national squad. Valencia and ex-Manchester United player Nani was born in Praia but opted to represent Portugal; Gelson Fernandes, once of Manchester City, plays for Switzerland. Soccer royalty such as French international Patrick Vieira and Swedish legend Henrik Larsson could both have played for Cape Verde given their parentage.
"Before it was really hard for a player to have any interest in playing for the national team," Semedo admits. "But today things have changed... We have examples of players who have turned down offers to play in other countries so they could play for Cape Verde instead -- and they have no regrets.
"[They] can't buy what we offer them. We give them love, caring and friendship. They aren't admired only when they score a goal or play for the team. Even after retirement, they are cared for; the friendship continues. That is one important aspect about how we and Africa must treat our players so they may contribute to their countries of origin."
They may be able to offer their players love, but former player, coach, and 40 year veteran of Cape Verde soccer Luiz Da Silva says the nation needs to open its coffers if it wants to secure longterm success.
"How is it possible that a team that has made it to the qualifiers, and then qualified [for the African Cup of Nations] must rely on donations to play?" he asks. "That's unheard of."
Cape Verde is not a rich nation, and hardly ever plays friendlies because of the expense incurred. It's a serious handicap, preventing the national coach from experimenting or introducing fresh blood from local teams. Silva argues the lack of trickle-down opportunities stymies soccer at a domestic level.
How long Cape Verde can continue to defy the odds remains to be seen. It's going to take time and money to maintain their remarkable trajectory, and sustained exposure at international level. For the players on the pitch the job is much simpler: keep on winning.
"[Soccer] happens to unify everyone," says captain Marcos Soares. "We hope to continue getting good results so that we can give a good example to the country, particularly for the youth to follow."

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