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Cape Verde’s islanders look to make a splash

Cape Verde are in unfamiliar territory as they top their 2012 Nations Cup qualifying group after two games – but things have rarely looked better as they target their maiden finals.

That said, the Blue Sharks are not yet ready to say that a place at the 2012 tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon is theirs.

After all, they have flattered before only to disappoint at the business end of a campaign.

With three qualifiers left for the 2006 Nations Cup, the islanders lay second in a six-team group where the top three would make the finals – but they eventually finished fifth.

This current campaign is off to a fantastic start with a 1-0 home win over Mali followed by a 0-0 draw in Harare, where the visitors played an ultra-defensive game against Zimbabwe.

We have hundreds of players in many European countries – and I’m still looking around to make the team stronger
Cape Verde coach Lucio Antunes

Two games against bottom-placed Liberia follow when the qualifiers resume next year but Cape Verde coach Lucio Antunes is hesitant to make any predictions at this early stage.

“All the teams think they can make it to the finals, but we’re in first place and the point in Zimbabwe was very good for us,” he told BBC Sport.

“We will try to win against Liberia – all teams have the same possibility but we are hopeful after this result.”

Although Cape Verde still carry the tag of minnows in African football, it is no surprise to see their continued improvement.

Every member of the 18-man squad selected to face Zimbabwe plays in Europe, among them captain Lito, who is in his eighth season in the Portuguese top-flight.

There were seven other Portugal-based players, three with Spanish clubs (including left-back Stopira, who is in the B team of Deportivo La Coruna) and others based in France, Netherlands, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

Map of Cape Verde
Won Independence in 1975
Population: 506,000 (UN, 2009)
Made up of 10 main islands

Most of the players grew up outside Cape Verde and decided to change nationality to represent the Blue Sharks – meaning Antunes finds it difficult to build a team that spends so little time together.

“All the big teams – whether it’s Portugal, Spain or Argentina – have the same problem, having just five days to prepare the team for international matches,” he said.”But we play together as a group, as a team.”

However the Blue Sharks fare in 2012 qualifying, they have huge potential to develop further as Antunes is continuing the search for players from Cape Verdean communities in Europe.

One that got away is Portugal and Manchester United winger Nani, who was born in the Cape Verde capital Praia.

But there are many more players for the coach to unearth.

“We have hundreds of players in many European countries, in second divisions, third divisions and so on,” said Antunes, who was appointed in July.

“I’m still looking around to make the team stronger.”

Ranked 15th in Africa and 77th in the world, Cape Verde have every reason to be given respect by their opponents in what is only their seventh attempt to qualify for the Nations Cup finals.

And the football fortunes will surely only get better for this island nation of half a million people, which has most of its talent scattered abroad.

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