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Football | Afcon

Lucio Antunes © Backpagepix

'Mourinho a friend but no football talk'



Cape Verde coach Lucio Antunes is one of Jose Mourinho's more special friends.

He's the man who guided a tiny island country with no football history to the African Cup of Nations and didn't need the help of one of the world's top managers to do it.

Because their friendship doesn't involve talking about football, Antunes said on Thursday.

Antunes and his close-knit Cape Verde team will open the African Cup against host South Africa on Saturday in their first appearance at a major tournament, the pinnacle so far in a staggering rise for a country of just 500 000 people spread out in a group of small islands off the west coast of Africa.

On the way to South Africa, they also beat four-time African champion and West African giant Cameroon in qualifying.

While Antunes' friendship with Mourinho was known, the Cape Verde coach clarified their relationship on Thursday.

Getting one of African football's clearest underdogs to the finals was all the work of Antunes' and his players, apparently, and they didn't need any special help from 'The Special One.'

"Jose Mourinho, we're friends," Antunes told reporters. "He's never given me any tips concerning soccer. We just talk about our families, about our private lives. That belongs to us and is not worth talking about here."

Instead of footballing advice from the Real Madrid coach, Antunes has relied on the dedication of a group of players, but also the work of a football federation and of an entire country to achieving the goal.

"Everyone is committed and everyone has got the responsibility to the jersey of the country and is giving it support," the coach said, speaking through a translator. "That is why we are always trying to do our best."

Cape Verde is undoubtedly one of Fifa's success stories - maybe one of its biggest - and its progress has been proudly displayed on the world body's website in the run-in to Africa's top football event.

With no natural grass football pitches because of its tough Atlantic Ocean climate and limited technical resources, Fifa has helped provide artificial pitches and has funded football development in the country.

When the players run out for their first game at a major tournament, it'll be in front of nearly 90 000 people and in the same cavernous stadium where Spain won the World Cup three years ago. The crowd watching at Soccer City on Saturday will be equivalent to nearly 20 percent of Cape Verde's population.

"Cape Verde is happy to be here. We're happy to play with the host, and will be with the best teams in Africa. We hope to do well in the tournament," Antunes said. "The main objective is to be here."

His humility was touching, but also possibly unnecessary.

Boosted by its recent, rapid progress, Cape Verde is now the highest ranked team in Group A at the Cup of Nations. At No 70 in the world on Fifa's list and No 15 in Africa, it's above former champions South Africa and Morocco, and Angola.

Wouldn't this make Cape Verde's "Blue Sharks" the favorites to win the group, a reporter asked, and progress to the quarterfinals?

The question took defender Fernando Neves by surprise. In fact, he needed it repeated to be sure he had understood the implication of his country's rise up the rankings.

"No, no," Neves replied, with a grin. "We are not the favorites."

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