Cape Verde were two games away from becoming the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup. Their disqualification is a cruel exit from football's biggest tournament.
Cape Verde and its 'Blue Sharks' national team have been on a footballing whirlwind over the last two years, but two weeks ago their World Cup hopes were brought abruptly to an end. The archipelago nation was within two games of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, set to take place in Brazil. However, in a match against Tunisia, whom they beat 2-0, the team was disqualified for fielding an illegible player, Fernando Varela. Varela was serving a four-match suspension at the time after receiving a red card for 'unsporting conduct' during a previous qualifier.
Cape Verde have the right to appeal, but any attempt to do so may be futile as they were clearly in contravention of FIFA rules, which stipulate: "An expulsion automatically incurs suspension from the subsequent match, even if imposed in a match that is later abandoned, annulled and/or forfeited."
It is a case of so close, yet so far, for Cape Verde, who would have been the smallest country ever to qualify for international football's premier competition. Whilst this is a huge disappointment for the Blue Sharks, it is still worth noting what a remarkable rise Cape Verde has had.
A scrappy start
Cape Verde declared independence from Portugal in 1975, and played their first international match against Guinea-Bissau four years later, losing 3-0. From the beginning, the Blue Sharks struggled to be more than minnows of international football, not helped by the fact that they were not affiliated with FIFA until 1986.
The state of affairs was so bad that Cape Verde did not even enter the World Cup between 1986 and 1998. The same is true of the Africa Cup of Nations, which the team entered just twice (withdrawing once) between 1957 and 1998. At the turn of the millennium the Blue Sharks were ranked a lowly 182 (out of 207) in the FIFA World Rankings.
A game of two halves
When Lúcio Antunes was appointed as manager in May 2010, things began to look up for a team that were at one stage almost falling out of the FIFA ranking table. That year, he led the team to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time. With the team doing so well, Antunes was forced to take leave from his day job as an air-traffic controller.
Since then, the Blue Sharks have advanced in leaps and bounds, consistently improving their results and in the process reaching an all-time high ranking of 36th in August, although they have since then dropped slightly to 44th. The team still remain above Tunisia in the rankings, and are the sixth highest ranked African side, according to FIFA.
Although there are some household names who would be eligible for the national team, including Champions League winning Portuguese international Nani, Cape Verde's squad is now made up of footballers who play for some of the more obscure sides in Europe and Asia, as well as a handful from the Cape Verdean domestic league. Amongst them is winger Ryan Mendes, currently playing for Lille, who scored twice for Cape Verde in the 2013 Afcon qualifiers.
Tapping into the diaspora (there are more Cape Verdeans abroad than there are at home) has paid dividends. Fernando Varela for example, the player at the centre of the disqualification, was born in Portugal and now represents former Champions League winners and Romanian heavyweight Steaua București. Making use of its overseas citizenry is especially important for Cape Verde, considering that the domestic population is less than 500,000. The drive towards engaging the country's diaspora in national football is generally accredited to the man whom Lúcio Antunes succeeded, João de Deus.
Cape Verde's rise was rewarded with a place at the 2013 African Cup of Nations, the Blue Sharks' first ever major international tournament. Cape Verde beat four-time Afcon winners Cameroon 3-2 to qualify. Despite being drawn as fourth in their group in South Africa, Cape Verde did not shirk at the big stage and made it as far as the quarter-finals, an unprecedented achievement for the island minnows.
They were however eventually beaten 2-0 by Ghana, who boast a host of stars playing in the biggest leagues in Europe. Cape Verdean centre-back Fernando Maria Neves (Nando) impressed all and he was named in the Afcon Team of the Tournament. Unfortunately for his team, he retired from international duty, at the age of 35, after Cape Verde's loss against Ghana.
The side also made a strong showing in the 2014 World Cup qualification, topping their group after beating a traditionally strong Tunisian side. However, the match was subsequently awarded to Tunisia due to Varela's ineligibility, ensuring Tunisia's progression in the tournament over Cape Verde.
Pumped up for next time
With such a young squad - the average age of the players for the match versus Tunisia was just 25 - there is no reason why this ambitious side cannot bounce back from their bitter World Cup disappointment and continue to develop. The African Cup of Nations in 2015 will be the perfect chance for them to prove that they are no one hit wonder. The World Cup dream might be over, but the tale of Cape Verde's rise could be just beginning.