Johannesburg, South Africa. I touched down not too long ago and already I have been taken by the sheer beauty of the city.
Believe me, you have to see it for it to sink in, that indeed there is a city in Africa this aesthetically pleasing, even more than some of Europe’s modern cities.
Well, the earlier I shed my “Johnny Just Come syndrome” the better.
I need to focus. Focus on the mission. It’s true that I came here to celebrate African football, but more importantly, to cover for you out there, what’s left of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
After all, it is from the quarterfinal that the real competition begins right? It’s when the boys are separated from the men.
So, while making arrangements to fly to Port Elizabeth where Ghana’s Black Stars have been based since the start of the tourney, I couldn’t deny that at the back of my mind, I silently prayed a fifth conquest for the Black Stars; that would be the icing on the trip here to Nelson Mandela’s land.
February 10 in Johannesburg’s soccer city stadium is when we would find out.
Before then however, the Stars would have to evade the snare of the latest sharks in town; Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks!
They have caught everybody’s attention with their giant killing swallows.
They swallowed mighty Cameroun before the tourney, stretched hosts South Africa and accounted for Angola, en route to a historic quarterfinal berth at their very first attempt.
You would realise a hint of caution in my tone by now. Well, there’s always a danger when an underdog goes into an encounter with nothing to lose against an established power like Ghana.
The underdog throws caution to the wind and plays with energy and passion; ingredients which can unsettle the strongest of teams.
So, while not wholeheartedly admitting it, the question, that keeps playing in my mind like a broken record is; can Cape Verde stop Ghana from a semi-final berth?
Well, you and I will dissect that soon, but only after meeting the Blue Sharks.
SMALL SIZE, BIG DESIRE
Cape Verde has never featured prominently in African football. Indeed, the mention of Cape Verde only brings to mind beaches and small islands which make up this small nation off the coast of Senegal.
To think that they were located in West Africa and I didn’t even know. Did you? Well, Cape Verdeans despite a meagre population of 500,000 have always made most of their culture and leisure activities to boost tourism and their economy.
A big part of these activities is their football which until recently received little prominence on the international stage.
Enter a certain Joao de Deus, then coach of Portuguese second division club Oliveirense, who also doubled as coach of Cape Verde between 2008 and 2009.
Joao de Deus, together with the football federation in a bid to raise the profile of Cape Verdean football formulated a policy that several years down the line, would come to bear fruit.
They realised that their real talents were not home but abroad, especially Portugal where most Cape Verdeans migrate to.
So, they made it a deliberate policy to woo footballers born in abroad but of Cape Verdean roots to play for the Blue Sharks.
They did so in the hope that, they will unearth the future Nani or Rolando, who both play for Portugal and Henrik Larsson who played for Sweden, but are all of Cape Verdean roots.
That policy was given the necessary tonic when coach Lucio Antunes took a long leave from his regular job as an air traffic controller and descended onto the football pitch to motivate Cape Verde’s fairy tale march to the 2013 AFCON by eliminating Cameroun.
He did so by eliciting national pride and passion in his players.
If many though it was a fluke, Coach Lucio Antunes wasn’t letting up when he spent a week shadowing his personal friend and mentor Jose Mourinho for a week in the lead up to the tournament.
Surely, that week was well spent as evident in the Blue Sharks delivery at the group stage; drawing their opening game with hosts South Africa, tying with North African giants Morocco, before coming from a goal behind to beat Angola 2-1.
For many, the Blue Sharks had overachieved and would happily bow out of the tournament, or so we thought. Not coach Antunes.
After beating Angola, he called for a bigger fish and he specifically requested Ghana. Well, the soccer gods being very nice granted him his desire.
Ghana topped group B to set up the quarterfinal meeting on February 2 in Port Elizabeth.
But has coach Antunes and his Blue Sharks bargained for more than they can handle? Can the Blue Sharks stop the Black Stars’ march to glory? Well, here is my take:
BITING MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW
I do not for a second doubt that on Saturday, we will see a determined Cape Verdean side, one that will happily stroke the ball around, one that will give no quarter by using their physical advantage (most of them are big in size), one that will show grit and enormous effort. Yes they will; from their captain and resolute defender Nando, supported by others like Carlitos (Nani’s cousin) exciting midfielders Toni Varela and Luís Carlos Almada Soares affectionately called ‘Platini’ to their crafty forwards like Heldon and Mendes; Cape Verde will fight, but will that fight prevail against Ghana’s Black Stars? Will they have come back to earth and have the presence of mind to compete?
Ordinarily, this fixture should have been a straight call for the Black Stars, but the Stars started off slowly and have only been progressing match after match.
The Stars’ strength lie in its hard working midfielders and ability to score from set pieces as half of their 6 goals have come from dead ball situations.
Mubarak Wakaso is a major threat here and his return after missing the last group game versus Niger will be vital. He would be supported effectively by box to box midfielder Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu as well as creative force, Kwadwo Asamoah.
Lead striker and Captain, Asamoah Gyan, after firing blanks in the first 2 games versus DR Congo and Mali would have his confidence restored after scoring one and setting up two goals in the 3-0 rout of Niger.
So, when you count player for player, as well as big match temperament, Ghana obviously towers Cape Verde and it will be Ghana’s match to lose really once she addresses her weaknesses at the full backs.
Well, so it seems on paper, but how many times hasn’t football made nonsense of these analysis?
History is littered with many a football upset. Come Saturday, we will know whether the meat that Cape Verdeans ordered off the AFCON menu in the shape of the Black Stars will prove too tough for them to bite or whether the Black Stars’ night will be as long as my intended flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth.