The date 14 October 2012 will forever hold a prominent place in the annals of Cape Verdean football. That day, the African country’s modest national team pulled off one of the greatest surprises in recent history by qualifying for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations at the expense of giants Cameroon.
It was no one-off, either. From that moment on, the Blue Sharks became a continental sensation. A year later they were on the verge of an even bigger upset – knocking Tunisia out of 2014 FIFA World Cup™ Brazil qualifying – only to have their hopes dashed following a sanction for fielding an ineligible player.
Today, Cape Verde Islands want to go even further – all the way to Russia 2018 to be precise. The opportunity is there to do so, a fact nobody is more keenly aware of than Djaniny Tavares, one of the side’s key figures throughout their fantastic journey. “I say this with humility, but we’re going to do it,” the fleet-footed striker told FIFA.com.
Time to gain ground
Despite all the positivity, however, Cape Verde Islands began the final round of Russia 2018 qualifying with a 2-0 defeat to Senegal. Much to Tavares’ frustration, he was unable to play: “Unfortunately I couldn’t participate because I’d just recovered from an operation and wasn’t 100 per cent fit. I preferred to get back in shape in order to be able to help the team as much as possible.”
Now, though, the 6’3″ (1.90 metre) striker with a broad stride is back, and just in time. Cape Verde will host Burkina Faso in November in Group D, a pool that looks to be so tight that no side can afford to slip up.
“There was a lot of talk that this group gave us a great chance of qualifying,” Tavares said. “But the other teams are really tough. Senegal have got players in the best leagues in Europe, Burkina Faso finished as continental runners-up and South Africa are in great form.”
We’re a very modest team, but we have many hopes.
Djaniny Tavares, Cape Verde Islands forward.
Nevertheless, the Blue Sharks have faith in themselves, and rightly so. After all, it was just two years ago that they were the highest-placed African team in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking after climbing to a best-ever position of 27th. Although they have slipped further down since then, Tavares believes their talent remains undiminished.
“Yes, that got a lot of coverage; we went several games without losing and we achieved great things,” he said. “We’ve come down since then but we know that if we stay humble we’ll get back to where we were. One thing this team has is that we know each other really well. It’s the same group of players that started Cape Verde’s rise and we’ve become a family.”
The road less travelled
Looking at his statistics, one fact stands out above all others: despite all Tavares’ years in the national set-up, he has only made 26 international appearances, scoring eight goals. The reason is that unlike many of his team-mates, the forward has taken an unusual path in the game.
“One of the biggest differences between this team and those of the past is that we’ve got lots of players overseas,” he explained. “Almost everyone’s in Europe, but I’m not. I was playing in Portugal but my coach there, Pedro Caixinha, was offered a job by Santos Laguna in Mexico and he took me with him. He’s not here anymore but I’m very happy in Mexico.”
Indeed, Tavares believes one of Cape Verde Island’s greatest advantages is the players’ willingness to take risks and fight for their dreams: “We’re a very modest team, but we have many hopes. Just imagine: ours is a small country with ten islands and very few inhabitants [approximately 525,000]. We know we have to do things differently in order to get what we want. That’s what led me to look for something different and to my team-mates emigrating as well.”
As small as the country may be, players and fans alike have big aspirations. “The supporters there always want, want, want,” he said, humorously describing the followers in his homeland. “They’re really ambitious and they make us do everything we can to make them happy. To do that we need to play well and win matches. We know it won’t be easy, but with belief and humility anything is possible. Both for us and for them.”