By Mike Collett
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Football history is full of unlikely upsets and fairytale victories, but few compare with the tale the dreamweavers of the Cape Verde Islands are spinning in their first ever appearance in the African Nations Cup finals.
Their progress from an obscure footballing backwater ranked 182nd out of FIFA's 200-odd members a decade ago to a place just outside the top 50 last year is a remarkable rise by any standards.
Compared to club football, their arrival equates to the rise of German village side Hoffenheim, who came from regional obscurity to a place in the Bundesliga in 2008.
Reaching the Nations Cup last eight is reminiscent of Wimbledon, who rose from the anonymity of the English minor league game where the won the old FA Amateur Cup in 1963 to reach the top tier and beat mighty Liverpool in the FA Cup final itself in 1988.
At international level, the achievements of Cape Verde, who with just 500,000 inhabitants are the smallest country ever to play in the finals, will strike a chord in Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and even Cameroon, who they defeated 3-2 on aggregate in the qualifiers to reach the Nations Cup finals for the first time.
All of those countries exceeded expectations to reach and impress at World Cup finals and Cape Verde's performances here will have special resonance in Yaounde, the Cameroon capital.
It was 23 years ago that Cameroon were being feted as Cape Verde are now for their achievements in the 1990 World Cup in Italy when they became the first African country to reach the quarter-finals and only missed out on a semi-final place after a narrow 3-2 extra-time defeat by England.
Cape Verde, who gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and only joined FIFA as relatively recently as 1986, did not even start competing in World Cup qualifiers until 2000 but a place in the World Cup finals at some point in the future is now looking a realistic target.
Their achievement in reaching the quarter-finals of this tournament was all the more satisfying for the inhabitants of the archipelago off west Africa given it came thanks to their stunning 2-1 win over Lusophone rivals Angola on Sunday.
At various points during the match, being played simultaneously with South Africa's game against Morocco in Durban, Cape Verde were in, then out then in the quarter-finals as the two games dramatically unfolded.
Eventually Heldon's stoppage time winner not only gave them their first ever victory in the finals but also ensured they finished second in Group A behind South Africa and will be back in Port Elizabeth on Saturday to meet the winners of Group B.
Coach Lucio Antunes said he hoped they would face Ghana.
"We want to compare ourselves against the best in Africa and Ghana are among the best," he told reporters.
"We have already reached one objective here which was to qualify for the quarter-finals, no matter what anyone else thought, and we have done that. Why stop now? We want to carry on."
Antunes is certainly a man to get the best out of his men as the opening draw against the hosts and a subsequent draw against Morocco proved. Both of those teams have far more pedigree than Cape Verde, both are former champions, but there is one thing they lack and Cape Verde possess - a singing coach.
Antunes started to sing a few bars of a traditional Cape Verde ballad "Biografia de um Criolo" during his post-match press conference and his skipper Nando, sitting alongside him, said the harmony he brings to the squad was key to their success.
"He knows us, what we can do and he is the architect of this success. But we want to go on and do more, and we have the belief to do it," he said.
What is obvious is that Antunes has forged his team into a solid working unit, no world-beaters, but effective at the back and with Ryan Mendes and the self-styled Platini, whose real name is Luis Soares, creative in midfield and attack - and one that can cause problems to opponents.
Much has been made of Antunes' friendship with Real Madrid's Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho, who celebrated his 50th birthday at the weekend.
Asked if Mourinho had been in touch to congratulate Cape Verde on their success, Antunes said no but that he had been in touch with Mourinho to wish him happy birthday.
That kind of attention to detail can have a big impact in the game, as Cape Verde seem to be proving. (Editing by Mark Gleeson and Mark Meadows; [email protected]; +44 20 7542 7933; Reuters Messaging:; [email protected])