C. Verde coach: Mourinho a friend but no football

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.”