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Cape Verde is the real unknown

It is one week to the start of the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations, Afcon 2013.

The D-Day draws near. As the general picture of the championship becomes clearer, the mystery of the national team of the Cape Verde islands deepens.

The friendly match last Wednesday night in Faro, Portugal, between the Green Eagles of Nigeria and the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde has become one of the most scrutinised matches ahead of the Orange African Cup of Nations.

The little Islands in the Atlantic Ocean have suddenly become the litmus of Afcon 2013.

In qualifying for the championship, the Blue Sharks defeated one of Africa’s strongest and most consistent teams; a team dreaded by most for their physicality and athleticism; a team with truly intimidating records in African football and renowned for the indomitable spirit of its players.

Any team that can knock out the Indomitable Lions from the qualifying rounds of any Africa championship or tournament cannot belong to the category of ‘ordinary’. It must attract a lot of attention.

This conquering ‘army’ is a little known country with little or no past records in football in the continent, lying lonely and isolated in the Atlantic Ocean a long way from the West African coast. Nothing in its history served notice of an impending onslaught on African football until its national team struck Cameroon in a hurricane.

The crisis within Cameroonian football at the time notwithstanding, the Lions had no idea what they were up against until they had been inflicted maximum damage, creating in the process one of the greatest upsets in the history of qualifying rounds of the African Championship.

That’s the real threat every team that will come across the Cape Verdeans in Afcon 2013 would have to face – an unknown force!

That’s why it has become imperative that any serious coach or team that hopes to win the championship must include in their plans the possibility of confronting this unknown quantity sometime along the circuit of matches. Since the rest of the teams at the championship know each other well enough, the Blue Sharks have become the literal dark horse of Afcon 2013!

It is understandable, therefore, that Ghana, with a real chance to end their 32-year title-hiatus, were quick to seek out Cape Verde and try to unravel their mystery. On November 14, 2012, in the University of Lisbon stadium in Portugal, the Black Stars did just that. They played a friendly match and got a healthy dose of the poison of the Blue Sharks.

The Ghanaians appeared to be more interested in studying the Cape Verdeans than winning, played very cautiously and managing to scrape through with a lone goal, a hard-fought victory.

Last Wednesday, it was the turn of Nigeria, another serious aspirant for the African title, to seek to demystify the Blue Sharks. The friendly match, played before a record audience of empty seats in an almost empty stadium, took place in Faro, Portugal.

The Nigerian team must have learned some useful lessons from that match – greater respect for Cape Verde, the relative weak underbelly of the Nigerian midfield and that the road to winning the African trophy is going to be rougher and tougher than they ever imagined. The Blue Sharks put up a brave fight containing the Eagles. They arrive in South Africa from almost nowhere to become, perhaps, the most anticipated and mysterious spectacle of Afcon 2013.

The Bafana Bafana team that will face them on January 19 must have watched the match with a microscope trying to study the ‘enemy’ that could turn their opening baptismal night into a nightmare.

In the space of a few months Cape Verde have played three of the strongest teams on the continent (two of them are in Afcon 2013) and have emerged with a lot of respect and their mystique still intact. They remain largely unknown. Indeed, they have become the barometer to measure the chances of the teams most favoured by me to lift the title – South Africa, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. (Readers will notice that defending champions, Zambia’s Chipolopolo, have dropped out from my list).

On the eve of the championship Ghana and Ivory Coast have served notice that they are prepared. Ghana’s clinical display and comprehensive demolition of Egypt (3-0) tells its own story. Ivory Coast’s very impressive performance in the 1-1 draw with Russia reveals that they are not as spent as I assumed. South Africa’s good display but 0-1 loss to Norway will be diminished by the home support they will receive that could lift them beyond their normal capacity. Nigeria’s draw with Cape Verde reflects nothing on how the team will play during Afcon. As usual they will be a hard nut for any team to crack.

All eyes will be on the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde on the first day. Fate has positioned them as the opening act of the 29th Africa Cup of Nations championship. There cannot be a better and more intriguing setting for the start of the three weeks of the football drama that will explode in Johannesburg, South Africa, on January 19.

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