Roberto Lopes: Shamrock Rovers man is ready for Afcon after Cape Verde’s appeal via LinkedIn
When Ireland-born Ayman Ben Mohamed was called in by surprise to play for Tunisia, fellow Dublin Bohemians team-mate Roberto Lopes joked that he too could become an African international.
In May 2016, Lopes wasn’t serious. Yet more than five years later, he is set to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off in Cameroon next month.
Born in the Irish capital to a Cape Verdean father and Irish mother, the defender had no plans to compete for the small archipelago until The call of Ben Mohamed.
“He was having a very good season and then he was called up after declaring himself for Tunisia,” Lopes told BBC Sport Africa.
“I was doing an interview and joking that I too could become international because I was from Cape Verde, and I was going to fill out the papers for that.
“There was a journalist who went a step further and contacted someone from the Cape Verde federation but nothing materialized.”
But three years later, after moving to Shamrock Rovers and with the club competing in the Champions League and Europa League, Lopes received a message on his LinkedIn profile that got the ball rolling.
“I created a profile when I was in college, but I never really looked at it,” he said.
“I received a message from the coach at the time, Rui Aguas, but he wrote to me in Portuguese. “Hi Roberto, have you had a chance to think about what I told you? “
“I felt so rude that I hadn’t replied to him months earlier. I copied the post and put it in Google Translate. And it was basically saying, ‘We’re looking to bring new players into the team. Cape Verde and would you be interested in declaring for Cape Verde?
“I was absolutely excited about it. I was like ‘Yes 100% I would love to be part of the team’.”
It started a trail of paperwork that resulted in a trip to Marseille, where the team were playing a friendly in October 2019 and where Lopes got to meet his new teammates for the first time.
It wasn’t going to be easy. While his father was from Cape Verde and had been a chef on the ferries that serve Ireland before settling permanently in Dublin, Lopes did not know Portuguese. They hadn’t spoken to him at home when he was growing up.
But it turned into an exciting adventure for the 29-year-old center-back, who played every minute of Cape Verde’s six qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup between September and November, where they put Nigeria on the phone in the goal of getting to the Africa game. -offs for Qatar.
Lopes also played in the March home win over Cameroon in the Nations Cup qualifiers to help his country secure its place in the final.
It was a first international competition for him after the laborious process of changing international allegiance. Lopes had represented the Republic of Ireland at youth level and had to officially apply to the Irish FA in order to declare for Cape Verde.
Then came concerns about a potential language barrier with his new teammates, which proved to be unfounded.
“I was so nervous, but once I got through all the doubts and fears were gone because everyone made me feel so welcome,” Lopes recalls.
“The teammates were making the effort to come up to me and say, ‘How are you, are you okay? And when you’re on the pitch, football has its own language.
“I guess what broke the ice was when I had to sing an initiation song. I had a day to prepare for it. I was on Spotify trying to search Cape Verdean songs and the fact that I went up to sing a song in a different language after being there for 24 hours set me up.
“I was really, really lucky and the squad and the manager obviously took care of me and trusted me. But I just tried to give my all every time I put on the jersey. I’m very proud of it. representing my family and Cape Verde. I love being a part of it. “
Lopes hopes Cape Verde upsets
The Cape Verde Islands have a population of just over half a million, but most of the team is, like Lopes, from the diaspora – especially Portugal and the Netherlands. .
“The only thing that stood out in training was the quality of the players,” said Lopes.
“There are superstars like Garry Rodrigues and Ryan Mendes, who has toured the French Ligue 1, and Steven Fortes and Kenny Rocha. But even players who could be in Portugal’s second division, or Cyprus, are really tough and technically strong.
“They’re constantly pushing us to a different level. You take it off when you come home [to your club]. If I want to improve I have to be able to perform at these levels and so you are trying to take your game to the next level. “
Lopes are expected to be in the starting XI of the Nations Cup, where the islanders are in Group A against Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Cameroon.
“We want to come out of the group stage, of course,” he said. “I don’t think you can think too much after that, because there are a lot of top teams that have qualified for this tournament.
“We are in a very strong group with Cameroon and Burkina Faso. I do not know Ethiopia too much but if they are there, they are on merit. The most important thing is that we approach the first game with the mentality. that we have to win. “
The Cape Verdeans play on the first day of the tournament in Yaoundé against Ethiopia, after the opening match between the Indomitable Lions and Burkina Faso at the new Olembe stadium.
“We have to get out of our squad before we can start hoping for the next rounds, quarter-finals and the like,” Lopes added. “We want to cause some upheaval and go as far as we can.”