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African Cup of Nations: From Cape Verde to Fantasy Island – a nation's flying

Air traffic controller Antunes has piloted his tiny offshore state to tournament's last eight

When the lives of hundreds of people depend on your decision-making, running a football team is unlikely to worry you. Which is why Lucio Antunes will approach the biggest match in his nation's short history with equanimity.

Antunes is the coach of Cape Verde, a 10-island archipelago 350 miles off the West African coast which has produced some serious football talent without ever coming to note. Until now.

This afternoon, in the Rustenberg stadium where England began their 2010 World Cup campaign, Cape Verde's Blue Sharks will seek to continue chomping their way through Africa's football elite.

The Sharks are the surprise team of the African Cup of Nations, shocking Cameroon to qualify for the competition and two other World Cup veterans, Morocco and Angola, to reach the last eight. Now they face Ghana, four-time winners and World Cup quarter-finalists. The archipelago will come to a standstill to watch it, but Antunes is unflustered.

He is in South Africa on secondment from his main job, that of air-traffic controller. "It is far easier to be a football coach because you have enormous responsibility when there are so many planes flying around," he said.

Not that the 46-year-old always keeps his cool. After Heldon, of Portuguese club Maritimo, scored the injury-time winner against Angola to put Cape Verde through, he did a lap of honour waving the national flag then sang to the media – as did his team.

Their delight was understandable. With a 500,000 population, Cape Verde is the smallest country ever to qualify for the ACN. Occupied by Portugal in the 15th century, it prospered as a slave trade stopover but suffered economically after abolition.

Independence did not arrive until 1975 and Cape Verde only joined Fifa in 1986. It jogged along the lower reaches of the Fifa rankings until a decade ago and was 107th as recently as 2008. But by then a development programme had been put in place, with Antunes heavily involved.

Thus, while descendants of Cape Verde's many emigrants feature, with five squad players born overseas, the bulk of the party are from the archipelago. Their achievements, said Simone Almeida, of the Riu Garopa Hotel in Santa Maria, on the island of Sal, have created widespread joy.

"Everybody is very excited," she told The Independent. "On the day of the Angola match in all the bars and cafés, everywhere with a television, people watched. There was jumping and screaming all over town. Afterwards everybody was partying, there were children in cars singing the national anthem. My mother said it was almost as big a party as independence."

Antunes is friends with Jose Mourinho and shadowed him at Real Madrid before the tournament. With a boldness Mourinho would approve of, he had previously hoped to play Ghana as "we want to compare ourselves against the best".

"Everyone will be watching the match, locals and tourists, all in flags and dressed up," added Almeida. "We know Ghana are a very strong team but everybody is very positive. We have achieved our goal, anything else we do is another win."

Whatever the result, Cape Verde's potential is considerable if they can continue to blend local talent with the diaspora. Among those who could have played for the islands in the past are Henrik Larsson, Patrick Vieira and Nani, while Cristiano Ronaldo has Cape Verdean ancestry, though a great-grandparent would not make him eligible. Their success in South Africa is bound to catch the eye of eligible players who might not previously have considered playing for them.

The global coverage should also help Cape Verde's growing tourist industry. "This has put the country on the map," said Almeida proudly.