PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (AP) — Among the many things Cape Verde's team learned at its first major football tournament, one stood out above all for coach Lucio Antunes: His players don't fear anyone now.
A charismatic and confident character and friend of Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, Antunes started his African Cup of Nations by saying that his tournament debutants were far better than anyone gave them credit for.
He ended it by rating his Cape Verde among the top three teams at the tournament and as good as title contenders Ghana and Ivory Coast.
And everyone in South Africa was also going to miss them, he added, after a 2-0 loss to Ghana in the quarterfinals finally brought an uplifting debut campaign to an end.
"We watched a beautiful game of football. Unfortunately the best team is going home," Antunes said after Cape Verde's elimination at the hands of the Black Stars at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. "So the tournament is going to lose a bit of shine.
"The positive I'm taking from this tournament is that Cape Verde is not worse than any of the other teams. In fact, Cape Verde is as good as any of the big teams in this tournament."
Antunes shamelessly played up his players' ability during their entertaining two-week stay at the African Cup, telling reporters his men from the small island nation — many of whom play in lower leagues in Portugal and France — were good enough for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United.
His assertion that Cape Verde was as good as Ghana wasn't as far-fetched, however, as the first-timer dominated the second half of Saturday's quarterfinal against the four-time African champion and only was held at bay by a man-of-the-match display from Ghana goalkeeper Fatawu Dauda.
Even Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah and captain Asamoah Gyan conceded Cape Verde was the better team in the second 45, and the Ghanaians had to "stand up to them," Appiah said, in an eventual 2-0 win.
Cape Verde had won some new supporters, as well as some games, Antunes said.
"There are a lot of people, South Africans, crying now that Cape Verde is out of the tournament," he said.
Antunes has a regular job as an air traffic controller and said the team would now follow the rest of the tournament on television with their families at home, either in Cape Verde, Portugal or France.
They would then "work toward" the next test and the next possible piece of history: qualifying for a first World Cup.
"The team is to be congratulated for the hard work," Antunes said, before departing to a round of applause from reporters.