Soccer's Little Giant Will Surprise You

Soccer's Little Giant Will Surprise You

Why you should care

This is the unlikely soccer story you won’t hear at the World Cup.

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On the surface, it was a David versus Goliath matchup. Tiny Cape Verde was up against South Africa — a country with a population 100 times greater and an economy 170 times larger than the islands off the coast of West Africa.

But after South Africa, in their yellow-and-green uniforms, took an early lead in the September 2017 World Cup qualifier match, Cape Verde, in white, struck back. Midfielder Nuno Rocha smashed the ball into the goal with his left foot in the 33rd minute and then scored off a penalty five minutes later to win the game for Cape Verde.

It wasn’t an upset. The size of Rhode Island, Cape Verde is a little-known and unlikely soccer giant to much larger and richer African nations like Kenya and South Africa that consistently rank below it. And looking beyond Africa, it regularly outranks geopolitical heavyweights like China, Russia and India. And among small nations internationally, it is the king.

Cape Verde is the only country with a population of less than 1 million that has consistently ranked in the FIFA top 80 since 2010.

That record includes a high of 33 and a low of 80. The country is currently ranked 58. “What Cape Verde has achieved is special,” says Fernando Borges, a Portuguese researcher who focuses on the intersection of sports and the media and taught at the Universidade de Santiago, Cape Verde, from 2009 to 2012.

There are multiple factors behind this success, say analysts. First, there’s soccer diplomacy. Over the past decade, FIFA, the sport’s global authority, has set up training facilities and an adjoining dorm in capital Praia, as part of its global efforts to expand the game. And, in 2014, China handed over a new stadium to Cape Verde, also in Praia. In other countries, such symbolic diplomacy would be a drop in the ocean. But in a country with just half a million people, this limited infrastructure has a greater impact.

Cape Verde has also benefited from a diasporic tradition. A million people of Cape Verdean origin live abroad — twice as many as those who reside in the homeland. Most of the expats are in Europe, especially Portugal, the nation’s former colonial ruler, and the Netherlands.

That drain of human resources doesn’t sound good for Cape Verde. But when it comes to soccer, it can help. Exposed to better facilities, coaching and competition from the start, some soccer players of Cape Verdean origin have made it to national teams in Europe, including former Portuguese striker Nani. Many other skilled players, though, can’t make it to that level. So they turn to the country of their ancestors to wear a national jersey. Of the current Cape Verde squad, six players were born abroad. Defenders Fernando Varela and Tiago Almeida, along with midfielders Helder Tavares and Marco Soares, were born in Portugal. Midfielder Jamiro Monteiro and forward Garry Rodrigues were born in the Netherlands.

The players playing abroad have been essential for international success.

Fernando Borges, sports and media researcher

This deep link with Europe plays the other way too. Cape Verde’s domestic soccer league, consisting of teams representing each of the country’s 10 islands, isn’t very competitive. Foreign clubs are where all skilled Cape Verde–born players head. Not one member of the national squad plays for a domestic club — they play in Portugal, Turkey, Russia, France, Romania, Greece, the U.S., the Netherlands and Cyprus, gaining tough competitive experiences that they then bring to the national team. “The players playing abroad have been essential for international success,” says Borges.

But wouldn’t the country’s best players staying away from the local league hurt the sport’s development in Cape Verde? The answer, surprisingly, seems to be no. In 2007, researchers Dirk G. Baur of the University of Technology Sydney and Sibylle Lehmann of Hohenheim University studied all 32 teams that participated in the 2006 World Cup to explore any link between a country’s performance and the number of its players playing abroad.

They concluded that “all countries that qualified for the World Cup gain from trade” of players.

Still, what’s unique about Cape Verde’s recent soccer success is its consistency. Other smaller countries have at times ranked higher than Cape Verde, only to fall behind. Iceland, with a population of 350,000, is currently ranked 22 in the world but has also fallen to 90, in 2012.

The answer may lie, at least partly, simply in the quality of the current generation of Cape Verde players, suggests Borges. Until 2005, Cape Verde had never ranked in the top 100. Over the past decade, on the other hand, it has never slipped out of that bracket. “For such small countries in sports, there is always a generational aspect,” he says.

That recipe for success is where Cape Verde’s challenge lies, Borges adds. The country, he says, needs to find professional managers to improve the next generation of homegrown talent.

The country is also yet to qualify for the World Cup — Africa’s qualifiers are notoriously tough to get through, with five slots for 54 nations. Cape Verde lost out on a spot for the 2018 edition — to be held in June in Russia — in the final round of qualifiers.

But in Africa, no one takes them lightly. They’ve learned not to.

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