Soccer

Mourinho's friend central to Cape Verde fairytale

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PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (AP)

One of the first tasks for Cape Verde coach Lucio Antunes after leading his little known team to the African Cup of Nations quarterfinals was to phone friend Jose Mourinho and wish him a happy 50th birthday.

The Real Madrid coach was likely to be the one doing the congratulating after Antunes - who also has a job as an air traffic controller - safely guided his high-flying team from the small island nation to the last eight of Africa's top tournament with a stirring comeback against Angola.

Antunes' achievements in South Africa are starting to be nearly as special as those of Mourinho and a victory over one of the title favorites, Ghana, in the quarterfinals on Saturday would rank high in the category of great football upsets.

Antunes has been at the heart of Cape Verde's fairytale at its first major tournament, backing up his outspoken and charismatic character with tactically astute coaching and planning in draws against former champions South Africa and Morocco, and then masterminding a late victory over the Angolans when he sent Heldon Ramos on as a substitute to score a dramatic winner and steal a come-from-behind 2-1 win.

And more than his coaching ability, he's clearly a motivating force for his squad and appears to have a passionate love of his small country of only 500,000 people. Spread out over a collection of islands off the west coast of Africa, Cape Verde was virtually unknown in footballing circles before it qualified for the African Cup for the first time under Antunes with an aggregate victory over Cameroon.

In African football, foreign coaches often bring temporary expertise or experience but generally no deep-rooted connection with the team and country they take charge of. Not Antunes.

''Lucio as a coach is very good,'' Cape Verde captain Fernando Neves said. ''He knows the players. He knows how they think as he's from Cape Verde. We've got beautiful players, talented players. The players treat him as an older brother.''

If it was in doubt, Antunes' patriotism was obvious when he did a lap around the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium flying the Cape Verde flag high after the thrilling injury-time victory over Angola, almost unaware and unconcerned with the fact that there were few fans there to watch.

It was there again when speaking with reporters afterward. He began by singing what he described as a traditional Cape Verde song in the country's native Portuguese and then dedicated it and the victory to Cape Verde's people, breaking out into a wide smile.

When asked what kind of song it was, he replied: ''A Cape Verde song!''

Shortly before that, his entire team had burst into the press conference room, where he was sitting alone with Cape Verde's gold-starred blue flag draped across his shoulders, quietly contemplating his considerable achievement. The players rushed in and grabbed him and brought him into the middle of the group and then chanted, danced and sang for the reporters. Antunes didn't hesitate to join in.

''It was the dedication of the players (that brought victory),'' he said after calm had been restored. ''I'm very happy with all the work that was done by the team and every individual on the team.''

While many coaches play down their team's chances of overall victory in an effort to guard against overconfidence, Antunes has gone the other way with his men and it has led them to overachieve in the biggest tournament they've ever played in.

He has useful players, including Lille forward Ryan Mendes, Ramos, attacking midfielder Luis ''Platini'' Soares and defensive general Neves.

But he's played them up as worthy of places at teams like Barcelona, Mourinho's Real Madrid and Manchester United and told the media directly in one session: ''My team is not as weak as you guys think. We are strong ... and we've got some fantastic players.''

For someone who moves large aircraft around the sky and makes sure they come back to ground safely, maybe facing up to the likes of South Africa, Morocco and now four-time African champion Ghana isn't so intimidating.

''The strongest is Ghana, you know that,'' Antunes told a reporter who was trying to gently drag out the 46-year-old coach's opinion on Cape Verde's possible quarterfinal opposition before it was decided. ''We are probably going to play Ghana. We want to play the best and as one of the best in Africa, we'd like to play Ghana.''

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Follow Gerald Imray at: http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP



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