The former air traffic controller behind Cape Verde's football fairytale

Lúcio Antunes has coached the tiny country's team past Goliaths to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations

Quick thinking, spatial awareness and a high threshold for stress are essential qualities in his regular job as an air traffic controller.

So far they are also serving Lúcio Antunes well as the author of one of African sports' most unlikely fairytales.

Antunes has coached tiny Cape Verde's national football team past some Goliaths and into the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations.

His phone has since turned hot with congratulatory calls from the president and prime minister of the islands' half million residents, as well as from his friend José Mourinho, coach of mighty Real Madrid.

Antunes, 46, swapped the airport control tower for the stadium dugout just over two years ago. "I think they have a lot of things in common," he said, relaxing at a hotel in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where the team play Ghana in Saturday's quarter-final. "You have to work in a group; the group is more important than the individual. It's helped me to deal with the players."

He became an air traffic controller in 1990 on Sal, one of 10 islands off west Africa that make up Cape Verde. His Sal developed fast, he recalled, because during the apartheid era, South African airlines were banned from the continent's airspace and had to stop there for fuel. "We had 38 flights a week from Johannesburg. At that time the island grew up because of hotels for the crew. They helped a lot."

With four international airports, Cape Verde continues to be a stopover from Europe to South America, Antunes added. Typically he would deal with 120 planes a day, and up to 140 in peak season, but never had a safety scare. He is now on a long sabbatical but still in close touch with his control tower colleagues. "They support me a lot," he said. "I speak to them every day. They are very happy for me. They're very excited."

The retired carpenter's son has five sisters and four brothers, one of whom is in South Africa as the team masseur. He represented his country as a football, basketball and table tennis player at international level.

Antunes was part-time coach of the under-21 football team from 2006.

He is used to blank stares when he says where he is from. "People say where is Cape Verde? They don't know Cape Verde, they have no idea where Cape Verde is located. We are a small country. Small but beautiful."

Sport and music are a big part of life on the islands. Asked how he spends his leisure time, Antunes replied: "Music, music, music, sports, water sports. Cape Verdeans do sports or cycling or running or swimming or basketball. In Sal we don't have a shopping mall. We had a cinema but we don't any more; now every family has their TV and DVD.

"The population of Sal is 25,000; when I arrived in 1990, it was 8,000; it has tripled in 20 years. People live very well and the quality of the life is good. All the children go to school. The health is good. It's a quiet place. We have a democracy, we don't have war. We have a good country."

Cape Verde ranks second behind Mauritius in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

Tourism is a vital industry. "We have no oil, we have only beaches, lovely beaches, calm islands, paradise. Music and culture are very important. The players are every day singing and we pass all the day listening to music from Cape Verde. I sing about being very happy to be born in Cape Verde," he said.

Each island has its own football league, with the winner going forward to a national championship. On smaller islands, the typical match attendance is 1,000; on the biggest, it is closer to 5,000. The national team usually draws between 7,000 and 8,000 spectators.

Cape Verde have made giant strides from a world ranking of 182 a decade ago to 70th today – just one place below Scotland. The "Blue Sharks" are unbeaten in their first appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations, having held Morocco and hosts South Africa and beaten Angola.

"We worked very hard to be with the giants," said Antunes. "Our players are very good. They are not less than the players from another country like Ghana, Ivory Coast or Nigeria. They are the same. We have them work to be one of the five best teams in Africa. It's possible."

He credits Fifa for helping provide synthetic pitches and coaching courses. "We have a lot of young boys dreaming to be an international, dreaming to play in Europe," he continued. "They work very hard to go to Europe and play in the national team. People in Cape Verde and Cape Verdeans born in Europe want now to come to the national team."

Of the Cape Verde squad, nine play in Portugal (the former colonial power), four in France, three in the Netherlands, two in Cyprus, one in Romania and one in Angola. Only two – both of them goalkeepers – are based in the islands.

Cape Verdeans at home and abroad will be transfixed by Saturday's clash with Ghana, a team that have previously distinguished themselves in the World Cup.

This week Cape Verde's president, Jorge Carlos Fonseca, and its prime minister, José Maria Neves, have been scrambling to reach Antunes by phone.

"They said all the people of Cape Verde don't think about other things. All the people are following the match against Ghana. Every Cape Verdean has a team in Portugal, in England, in France, in Spain, but now, since we are here, they forget all the teams in Europe. They sing a lot and only for the national team.

"The president said congratulations for the qualification and you did your job well and the people are very happy with you and your objective was achieved. Try to play without pressure. You are the best."

Congratulations also came from Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager.

In December Antunes spent a week shadowing him in Madrid. "He's fantastic. Before I met José Mourinho I was strong, but I learned a lot. The personality, the organisation, the focus on winning."

Asked if any of the Special One's magic has rubbed off, he said: "I have my way and he has his way and the players are very confident in me, I am very confident in the players. They know I had been with Mourinho; maybe this can help them. They know I sometimes speak with Mourinho; maybe they want to show the big teams in Europe they can go there. And maybe our opponents know I am friend of Mourinho and they are afraid. It's good! We enjoy it."

Might Antunes coach Real Madrid one day? "No, no. I like to be coach of Cape Verde forever. Only Cape Verde, only Cape Verde … One of these days I'm going back to air traffic control. Maybe."

In an interview on al-Jazeera recently, Mourinho praised the Cape Verdean, saying: "He is an intelligent coach. He has his own ideas, is well organised, methodical and ambitious. He is a very good coach."

The Cape Verde midfielder Toni Varela, 26, who plays for Sparta Rotterdam in the Netherlands, said he was aware of Antunes's career as an air traffic controller, but added: "We see him as 100% coach and we don't talk about that. The coach makes us a team and the spirit is very high."


David Smith in Port Elizabeth

The GuardianTramp

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