STOUGHTON — In homes, bars, and community clubs, members of the area’s large Cape Verdean community gathered this morning to watch their national soccer team compete for the first time in the Africa Cup of Nations.
“The whole country is going crazy,’’ said Victor Rosa, 47, at a Stoughton club where Cape Verdeans gathered to watch the game. “This is the first time the country is so united…. Soccer is the main thing that brings us together.’’
Natives of Cape Verde, a tiny island nation off Africa’s west coast, said they never expected their team to come this far. For years, the “Blue Sharks,’’ as the team is affectionately nicknamed, was a perennial cellar-dweller in international and African rankings. The country’s best players were routinely siphoned away by more prestigious European teams.
But the current Cape Verdean squad defied that history, silencing critics with a stunning last-second win over heavily favored Angola to join the last eight teams standing in the Africa Cup of Nations before losing 2-0 to Ghana today in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
The team is coached by Lúcio Antunes, who took a sabbatical from his day job as an air-traffic controller to lead the team and has since become a beloved national figure in Cape Verde. When Antunes sang a few lines from a popular Cape Verdean ballad at a press conference following the win over Angola, the country’s radio and television news stations started playing his rendition at the start of each broadcast.
“I cry when I talk to him. It’s like a movie,’’ said Lúcio Antunes’s sister, Helena “Ducha’’ Antunes, who watched the game in Stoughton. “It means a lot for our country.’’
Antunes and other Cape Verdean ex-pats at the Casa Caboverdiana club in Stoughton watched the game intently from rows of chairs in a small room. They stood and cheered whenever cameras showed Coach Antunes, then booed and hurled insults in Creole when flag-waving Ghanaian fans appeared.
Many Massachusetts residents from Ghana, a West African country of nearly 25 million people, handled the game more casually, streaming it on their computers at home, perhaps wearing a Ghana jersey or waving a flag.
“When we go to the finals, it’s going to be crazy,’’ said Gordon Halm, a Lowell resident who came to Massachusetts from Ghana just over 18 years ago. “Soccer is what every Ghanaian is passionate about.’’
Ghanaians have larger gatherings for big games, he said. They play drums, eat traditional food, and watch their national team, Ghana Black Stars.
“But right now, the drums and everything are quiet,’’ Halm said.
Halm was in Ghana in 1978 when midfielder Karim Abdul Razak won the Africa Cup of Nations with his “golden goal,’’ a moment equivalent to Adam Vinatieri’s January 2002 “Snow Bowl’’ kick or Bobby Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup dive. It’s a moment every Ghanaian soccer fan remembers, he said.
Since winning the cup four times between 1963 and 1982, the Black Stars have hit a championship lull.
“It has been almost about three decades,’’ Halm said. “It’s a long time. Hopefully one day we will be able to lift the cup once again.’’
While Ghana’s hopes are still alive, the Blue Sharks must now head home. But Cape Verdeans in Stoughton said the team’s improbable success was a source of a pride, regardless of one game’s outcome.
“Before, Cape Verde was a country most people didn’t know,’’ Antunes said. “But when my brother runs across the field waving the flag, I think, people are not going to ask anymore. Cape what? Cape Verde.’’