Despite being a relatively unknown force until recently, Cape Verde Islands have surged to the forefront of the African game. Now placed higher than any other team from the continent in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, they are currently looking down on traditional giants such as Côte d'Ivoire, Algeria, Ghana and Nigeria – all of whom considered the islanders an easy touch before their remarkable rise.
Crucial to that turnaround in fortunes has been the approach of the Cape Verdean Football Federation (FCF), and their decision to call up eligible players based in Europe. As a result, the national team is now composed almost entirely of talent from European clubs, with Portugal the leading supplier. There were no locally based players in Cape Verde's squad for the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
One member of that Portuguese contingent is Tiago Almeida, and FIFA.com caught up with the defender before he boarded a plane to Praia as he prepares to face Morocco in a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. As a recent addition to the ranks, the 25-year-old is well placed to shine a light on the FCF's new policy. "In the past, players preferred representing other countries rather than Cape Verde," he said. "But the federation changed its policy and convinced players based in Europe to represent their country, and that's improved our results.
"Now, every player dreams of wearing the national-team shirt. The players have all said yes to selection since the team first qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013 and reached the quarter-finals before losing with honour to Ghana. That explains why we have some top-quality players."
Given that Cape Verde is more widely renowned for its fine sandy beaches, many have been intrigued by the national team's sudden transformation. They only entered World Cup qualifying for the first time in 2000, but Almeida has his own explanation. "We're representing our country," he said. "The people there need things to make them happy, and when we step onto the pitch we play with all our heart and without pressure. We don't stop making an effort until the final whistle. Our motivation and determination are our main weapons when it comes to getting good results."
Those attributes have certainly borne fruit, and over the last few years football has provided one of the primary sources of cheer for a population suffering harsh economic conditions. "The first time I went to Praia, I noticed the joy that we gave to people," said Almeida. "The hotel was surrounded by fans of all ages and classes. Everyone wanted to take photos or ask the players something. And we have more and more supporters following us during training sessions and competitive games. We owe it to ourselves to make those people happy and honour their support."
Realising the dream
Cape Verde almost made history in 2013 when they came close to booking a place at Brazil 2014. Ultimately, they finished second in a group dominated by Tunisia, and Almeida still remembers the disappointment he felt as a fan. "Before the qualifiers, pretty much nobody would have bet on that team, but they succeeded in reaching the penultimate round. What we have to do now is learn from our mistakes."
They will get that chance on the road to Russia 2018, however, and it is fair to say that the qualifiers have come at the right time for Cape Verde. Boasting a number of exciting talents and riding high in the world ranking, they are expected to finish top of one of the groups, although Almeida believes caution is due. "Being top in Africa gives us more responsibility and we have to confirm our status," said the right-back, who is also studying sports management at a Portuguese university. "Our new ranking has put us under pressure and every team will want to beat us now, which means we'll have to redouble our efforts."
Nevertheless, the sense that Cape Verde can turn their recent progress into a World Cup berth remains powerful, and Almeida feels the tug of destiny as keenly as anyone. "We're not missing very much now in terms of making that dream come true," he said. "And I can guarantee you that this young generation is working flat out to meet the challenge. The time has come for us to pick up the torch and realise the dream of an entire nation."