13 January 2013

Cape Verde: The True Dark Horse of Afcon 2013


It is one week to the start of the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations, Afcon 2013.

The D-day draws near. As the general picture of the championship becomes clearer, the mystery of the national team of the Cape Verde islands deepens.

The friendly match last Wednesday night in Faro, Portugal, between the Green Eagles of Nigeria and the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde has become one of the most scrutinized matches ahead of the Orange African Cup of Nations.

The little Islands in the Atlantic Ocean have suddenly become the litmus of Afcon 2013.

In qualifying for the championship the Blue Sharks defeated one of Africa's strongest and most consistent teams, a team dreaded by most for their physicality and athleticism, a team with truly intimidating records in African football and renowned for the indomitable spirit of its players. Any team that can knock out the Indomitable Lions from the qualifying rounds of any Africa championship or tournament cannot belong to the category of 'ordinary'. It must attract a lot of attention.

This conquering 'army' is a little known country with little or no past records in football in the continent, lying lonely and isolated in the Atlantic Ocean a long way from the West African coast. Nothing in its make up of history served notice of an impending onslaught on African football until its national team struck Cameroon in a hurricane.

The crisis within Cameroonian football at the time notwithstanding, the Lions had no idea what they were up against until they had been inflicted maximum damage, creating in the process one of the greatest upsets in the history of qualifying rounds of the African Championship.

That's the real threat every team that will come across the Cape Verdeans in Afcon 2013 would have to face - that of an unknown force!

That's why it has become imperative that any serious coach or team that hopes to win the championship must include in their plans the possibility of confronting this unknown quantity sometime along the circuit of matches. Since the rest of the teams at the championship know each other well enough, the Blue Sharks have become the literal dark horse of Afcon 2013!

It is understandable, therefore, that Ghana, one of the teams with areal chance to end their 32-year title-hiatus, were quick to seek out Cape Verde and try to unravel their mystery. On November 14, 2012, in the University of Lisbon stadium in Portugal, the Black Stars did just that. They played a friendly match and got a healthy but relieving dose of the poison of the Blue Sharks.

The Ghanaians appeared to be more interested in studying the Cape Verdeans than winning, played very cautiously and managed to scrape through with a lone goal, hard fought victory.

Last Wednesday, it was the turn of Nigeria, another serious aspirant for the African title, to seek to demystify theBlue Sharks. The friendly match, played before a record audience of empty seats in an almost empty stadium, took place in Faro, Portugal.

The Nigerian team must have learnt some useful lessons from that match - greater respect for the Cape Verde, the relative weak underbelly of the Nigerian midfield, and that the road to winning the African trophy is going to be rougher and tougher than they ever imagined. The Blue Sharks put up a brave fight containing the Eagles. They arrive South Africa from almost nowhere to become, perhaps, the most anticipated, prospectively interesting and mysterious spectacle of Afcon 2013.

The Bafana Bafana that will face them on January 19, must have watched the match with a microscope trying to study the 'enemy' that could turn their opening baptismal night into a nightmare.

In the space of a few months Cape Verde have played 3 of the strongest teams on the continent (2 of them are inAfcon 2013) and have emerged with a lot of respect and their mystique still intact. They remain largely unknown. Indeed, they have become the barometer to measure the chances of the teams most favored by me to lift the title - South Africa, Ghana, Cote D'Ivoire and Nigeria. (Readers will notice that defending champions, Zambia'sChipolopolo, have dropped out from my list).

'Arena' passes on!

I spoke with him shortly before Christmas. We were going to work on some documentaries from archival film materials together. He was excited. I wanted to reconnect urgently with his wife, an eye specialist, my doctor. He connected me immediately.

Then he told me about his 70th birthday coming up in April this year and how he wanted me to be a part of the celebrations being planned.

Two weeks before that we were together at the exhibition match and reception for the visiting Williams Sisters at the Lagos Lawn tennis Club during which he was the Master of Ceremony conducting the program. On that occasion he was at his eloquent and biographical best, reeling out facts and figures about global tennis and its history to the admiration of all.

'Arena', Deacon Ayo Ositelu, is the complete sports package - a first class all-round sports man in his younger days, a veteran tennis and table tennis player, a veteran sports reporter, newspaper editor, and respected newspaper columnist. When he left his full time job as a journalist he became one of the pioneers of the sports business in Nigeria. He has maintained his solid link with sports through his weekly column in the Guardian and several seasonal specialized reports on tennis and boxing events in the Guardian for decades. He served as Kosofe Local Government Chairman in Lagos State and tried to drive grassroots sports development in the local government whilst he served. He was overwhelmed by the intrigues and 'dirt' in politics and opted not to re-contest and returned to his sports business and writings.

Deacon Ayo Ositelu, was a true gentleman, humble, very friendly and unassuming. Until he told me his age I did not realize there was a ten-year age-gap between us. Until I knew I used to call him by his first name. When I knew better I started to bow and even 'genuflect' in respect every time we met.

This past week he passed on, according to reports, shortly after watching the Nigerian national team play against Cape Verde on television.

Even as his death is a big shock and blow to the Nigerian sports fraternity, we are consoled by the fact that he left behind solid footprints in the legacy of a good family name, impeccable records of service to Nigeria, the journalism profession and sports, and an unquestionable integrity.

May His soul his in peace!

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