Roberto Lopes: Shamrock Rovers man set for Afcon after Cape Verde call-up via LinkedIn

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Roberto Lopes in action for Shamrock RoversDublin-born defender Roberto Lopes has improbably become an international regular for Cape Verde

When Ireland-born Ayman Ben Mohamed got a surprise call-up to play for Tunisia, his colleague Roberto Lopes, a team-mate at Dublin club Bohemians, joked that he too could become an African international.

Back in May 2016, Lopes was not being serious. Yet more than five years later, he is about to compete at the Africa Cup of Nations, which kick off in Cameroon next month.

Born in the Irish capital to a Cape Verdean father and Irish mother, the defender had no thoughts of competing for the small archipelago until Ben Mohamed's call-up.

"He was having a really good season and then he got called up after declaring for Tunisia," Lopes told BBC Sport Africa.

"I was doing an interview and joking that I, too, could become an international because I was from Cape Verde, and I was going to get the paperwork done for that.

"There was a journalist who took it a bit further and contacted someone in the Cape Verde federation but nothing materialised."

But three years later, after his move to Shamrock Rovers and with the club competing in the Champions League and Europa League, Lopes got a message on his LinkedIn profile that set the ball rolling.

"I set up a profile when I was in college but never really looked at it," he said.

"I got a message from the then-coach Rui Aguas but he wrote to me in Portuguese. I just thought it was a spam message and I took no notice of it. And then about nine months later, he messaged me back, saying, 'Hi Roberto, have you had a chance to consider what I said to you?'

"I felt so rude for not having replied to him months earlier. I copied the message and put it into Google Translate. And it basically said: 'We're looking at getting new players into the Cape Verde squad and would you be interested in declaring for Cape Verde?'

"I was absolutely buzzing with that. I was like, 'Yep, 100% I'd love to be a part of the squad'."

The ice-breaking initiation

Roberto Lopes of Shamrock Rovers with his award for being named in the Premier Division team of the year at the 2021 PFA Ireland AwardsRoberto Lopes of Shamrock Rovers was named in the Premier Division team of the year at the 2021 PFA Ireland Awards

That started a paperwork trail that brought about a trip to Marseille, where the side was playing a friendly in October 2019 and where Lopes could meet his new team-mates for the first time.

It was not going to be easy. While his dad came from Cape Verde, and had been a chef on the ferries that service Ireland before settling permanently in Dublin, Lopes knew no Portuguese. They had not spoken it at home when he was growing up.

But it has become a thrilling adventure for the 29-year-old centre-back, who played every minute of Cape Verde's six 2022 World Cup qualifiers between September and November where they took Nigeria down to the wire in a bid to get to Africa's play-offs for Qatar.

Lopes also played in March's home win over Cameroon in the Nations Cup qualifiers to help his country book their place at the finals.

How did tiny Cape Verde turn themselves into a regular attendee at Afcon?

It was a first competitive international for him after the laborious process of switching his international allegiance. Lopes had represented the Republic of Ireland at youth level and had to formally apply to the Irish FA in order to declare for Cape Verde.

Then came concerns about a potential language barrier with his new team-mates, which proved to be unfounded.

"I was so nervous but once I went over, all the doubts and fears just went away because everyone made me feel so welcome," Lopes recalled.

"Team-mates would make the effort to come up to me and say: 'How are you getting on, doing OK?' And when you're on the pitch, football has its own language.

"I suppose 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 up Cape Verdean songs and the fact that I went up to sing a song in a different language after being there for 24 hours settled me in.

"I've been really, really lucky and that the group and the manager have obviously taken to me and trust me. But I've just tried to give my all every time I put on the jersey. I'm very proud to represent my family and Cape Verde. I just love being a part of it."

Lopes hopes for Cape Verde upsets

Cape Verde's islands have a population of just over half a million but most of the squad are, like Lopes, drawn from the diaspora - particularly from Portugal and the Netherlands.

"The one thing that stood out in training was the quality of players," Lopes said.

"There are some superstars like Garry Rodrigues, and Ryan Mendes, who has been around France's Ligue 1, and Steven Fortes and Kenny Rocha. But even the players who might be in the second division of Portugal, or in Cyprus, are really tough and technically strong.

"They're constantly pushing us to a different level. You take that away when you come back home [to your club]. If I want to improve, I need to be able to perform at those levels and so you try to bring your game to the next level."

Cape Verde's team to face Nigeria in November 2021Lopes (back row, third from left) was an ever-present for Cape Verde in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup

Lopes is expected to be in the starting line-up at the Cup of Nations, where the islanders are in Group A against Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and hosts Cameroon.

"We want to get out of the group phase, of course," he said. "I don't think you can think about too much after that, because there are a lot of top teams that have qualified for this tournament.

"We're in a really strong group with Cameroon and Burkina Faso. I don't know too much about Ethiopia but if they are there, they are there on merit. The most important thing is that we approach the first game with the mentality that we need to win."

The Cape Verdeans play on the tournament's first day in Yaounde against Ethiopia, after the opening match between the Indomitable Lions and Burkina Faso at the new Olembe Stadium.

"We need to get out of our group before we can start hoping about the next rounds, quarter-finals and the like," Lopes added. "We want to cause a few upsets, and go as far and we possibly can."

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