By Miguel Pereira
FARO, Portugal, Jan 10 (Reuters) - A series of player withdrawals has failed to dampen the party mood for Cape Verde who make their debut at the African Nations Cup (CAN) finals next week in South Africa.
The archipelago nation in West Africa with a population of 500,000 is still ecstatic at becoming the smallest country to ever reach the finals thanks to a shock 3-2 aggregate win over four-times winners Cameroon in a playoff in October.
But midfielder Odair Fortes and Braga forward Ze Luis pulled out of the squad this week to be replaced by striker Rambe and winger Platini from Portuguese clubs Belenenses and Santa Clara, respectively.
"I don't think that the group is more fragile because of these absences," defender Fernando Varela told Reuters.
Varela, of Romanian club Vaslui was not discounting further upsets from the "Tubaroes Azuis" (blue sharks), who kick off the tournament against hosts South Africa on Jan. 19 and will also face Morocco and Angola in Group A.
"We know everybody is eyeing us because we knocked out Cameroon and we don't go there to mess around," he said as his team mates started practising at their training camp at the Algarve stadium in southern Portugal.
"We want to win every match and do our best - expect rigor and hard work."
Those are the values national coach Lucio Antunes, on leave from his job as an air traffic controller, must have had reinforced by Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho when he spent a week with the Portuguese learning some tricks of the trade last month.
Antunes' first concern will be to patch up his 23-man squad already missing the key figures of defender Ricardo, captain Lito and striker Dady before the late withdrawals.
However, these setbacks do not seem to have affected the squad's spirit.
"We are newbies. But the nervousness is gone because nerves were just for the qualifying," Cape Verde's football director Heldeberto Ribeiro said.
"Now that we are through, we must be tranquil and focus."
The team will take the buoyant beats of "funana" music with them to South Africa. A funana-influenced song blasted from a speaker and captured the mood at the training camp.
"The people are happy, Cape Verde is in the CAN. Oh yes we can," went the tailor-made tribute song by Cape Verde's duo Ay Tcla and Janett Lobo. (www.facebook.com/ay.tcla)
The players sing, smile, bounce and clap at to the tune while they tie their boot laces in one of the dugouts.
"As you can see the group is well. We feel like a family, like we are at home. Everyone wants to be here," Varela said. (Writing by Daniel Alvarenga; Editing by Alison Wildey)