Roberto Lopes and the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations

Roberto 'Pico' Lopes made history at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, becoming the first ever Irish-born player to take part in the African football showpiece - representing 73rd world ranked side Cape Verde. Here, we take a look at how Lopes faired during the tournament, which ended in Senegal defeating Egypt in the final this weekend just gone.

The 2021 AFCON got underway on Sunday 9th January, with Cape Verde drawn into Group A alongside hosts Cameroon, Burkina Faso & Ethiopia. 'The Blue Sharks', as Cape Verde were also known as, kicked-off their tournament on the opening day against Ethiopia, following Cameroon's 2-1 opening match win against Burkina Faso.

Matchday 1: Ethiopia 0-1 Cape Verde

Cape Verde faced Ethiopia in their opening game of the tournament, in the 60,000 capacity Olembe Stadium. Roberto Lopes was named in the Blue Sharks starting eleven, lining up in the centre of a defensive three in a 3-4-3 formation.

In the days leading up to their tournament opener, the squad were hit with a coronavirus outbreak amongst their group, forcing nine players to miss their group opener, as well as their manager Bubista.

Despite the game kicking off at night, the Cameroonian heat was evident as both sides took time to deal with the warm temperatures. The big talking point of the game fell after just 12 minutes on the clock, when Ethiopian central-defender shown a straight red-card when he fouled Cape Verde attacker Julio Tavares bearing down on the Ethiopian goal. Despite initially giving the defender a yellow-card, referee Helder Martins reviewed the challenge on the pitchside VAR screen and swiftly upgraded his decision to a red card, leaving Ethiopia with a mountain to climb.

From this moment on, Cape Verde began to control possession of the ball, but lacked creativity in the final third to break the deadlock against a stubborn, but well drilled Ethiopian defence.

As the half drew nearer to the interval, the breakthrough finally came for the Blue Sharks. After good play down the right-channel, Garry Rodrigues' superb cut-back found the head of front-man Julio Tavares, whose diving header found the back of the Ethiopian net and set the minimal amount of Cape Verdean's present at the stadium into raptures.

With the man, and goal advantage, Lopes' side controlled the play in the second-half, and despite not finding the back of the net again to double their lead, they did enough to see out the remaining minutes and secure three points in their opening game of the tournament.

Pico played the full 90 minutes of the Blue Sharks opening game in the heart of their defence, limiting the Ethiopian attack to a handful of chances. This win saw Cape Verde join Cameroon at the top of the Group A table, ahead of the Blue Sharks second Group A game against Burkina Faso 4 days later.

Matchday 2: Cape Verde 0-1 Burkina Faso

Cape Verde and Burkina Faso took to battle on match day two of Group A in Cameroon in the Olembe Stadium. After Cameroon sealed their place in the last-16 earlier on in the day thanks to a 4-1 hammering of Ethiopia, a win for Lopes and his Cape Verdean teammates knew they would seal their place in the first knock-out round of the tournament before their final group game against the host nation began.

As he did in the first group game, Pico lined out in the centre of the Blue Sharks' defence, as the Cape Verde continued their tournament with the absence of head coach Bubista through isolation. The coach was in regular contact with his management team during training and match-days, as he missed their opening two group games.

As expected, Cape Verde came up against a much more difficult test against a confident Burkina Faso side, who were without their talisman, Aston Villa's Bertrand Traore, who tested positive for coronavirus on the eve of the match.

Burkina Faso, nicknamed the stallions, saw more of the ball in the opening-half, and as Pico and his teammates thought they would see out the first-half and make it to half-time level, the stallions opened the scoring through winger Boureima Bande - who currently plays for Croatian side NK Istra 1961 on-loan from Dutch Eredivisie giants Ajax.

Bande, who replaced Bertrand Traore in the Burkina Faso line-up, chested the ball home inside the six-yard box following Issa Kabore's cross six minutes before half-time.

The pattern of play continued in the second-half as it did in the first, with Burkina Faso controlling the play and creating the better of the chances. Similarly to the second-half of Cape Verde's first group game, they lacked that cutting edge in the final-third of the pitch, as they fell to defeat for the first time in AFCON 2021.

Lopes again played the full 90 minutes of the Blue Sharks' defeat in central defence, as the Cape Verdean back-line worked tirelessly to keep their side in the game for the full 90 minutes.

This defeat meant Cape Verde required a result against already qualified Cameroon in their final Group game, and hope results elsewhere worked in their favour so that if they missed out on second place in the group, then they would be in 4 of the top 6 best 3rd placed teams to go through to the last-16 of the tournament.

Matchday 3: Cape Verde 1-1 Cameroon

Pico lined-up against the host nation in the middle of the Cape Verdean defence, against the already qualified host nation Cameroon in their final group game of AFCON 2021. Included in the Cameroon starting line-up was stars such as Napoli's Zambo Anguissa and Lyon striker Karl Toko Ekambi.

Cape Verde, lining out in their away white-strip, saw little of the ball in the opening-half, as Cameroon captain Vincent Aboubakar led the line strongly for the host nation.

Aboubakar broke the deadlock on 39 minutes after reacting quickest to a loose ball in the Cape Verdean box - his 5th of the tournament after netting a double in each of Cameroon's opening two games.

Cape Verde's head coach Bubista was present for this game after completing his isolation period in the week before, and brought on Garry Rodrigues at the interval, with the hope of getting a result out of the game.

Just 8 minutes into the second-half, and the sides were level. A ball in from the right-wing found its way towards substitute Rodrigues, and his audacious back-flick found the back of Andre Onana's net to level the scoring.

Pico and his defensive partners were put under serious pressure for the remainder of the half, but the Cameroon attack were unable to get through the well-drilled Cape Verdean defence, as they picked up their fourth point of AFCON 2021.

Pico's defensive ability shone throughout the 90 minutes of this clash, and was deservedly award Man of the Match for his magnificent performance in the heart of the Cape Verdean defence, who were up against some of the most talented attackers in African football.

This result meant that Cape Verde finished 3rd in Group A, after Ethiopia and Burkina Faso also drew 1-1 in their final group game. The Blue Sharks had to wait a day to see if they had done enough to qualify for the last-16 of the tournament, and after results elsewhere favoured them, a battle against Sadio Mane's Senegal was next instore for our Crumlin man and his teammates.

Last 16: Senegal 2-0 Cape Verde

Cape Verde were dealt a major blow before their last-16 clash with Senegal, when a food poisoning bug hit the Cape Verde camp, with 13 players and 4 staff members being affected with the bug - including Lopes.

In what was his biggest game of his life, Lopes battled through to make the starting eleven of the Cape Verdean side, against a Senegal side that included stars such as Liverpool's Sadio Mane, Chelsea's Edouard Mendy and Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly.

The odds of progression for the Blue Sharks were shattered when midfielder Patrick Andrade was shown a straight red card after just 20 minutes, before the Blue Sharks were then reduced to nine men following the dismissal of keeper Vozinha on the hour mark.

After battling though the first-half, it seemed Lopes was over his food poisoning bug, until footage emerged at half-time of the central defender puking in the tunnel ahead of the second-half. Lopes was evidently unable to continue, and was substituted by Diney at the beginning off the second-half.

Senegal star Sadio Mane eventually broke the deadlock three minutes after Vozinha's red card, before substitute Ahmadou Bamba Dieng wrapped up the game for the eventual winners of the tournament in injury time.

Speaking to following the Blue Sharks exit of the tournament, Lopes explained how his body was feeling throughout the game, and his emotions of representing his country in the biggest event of African football:

"I was in the tunnel about to come out after half-time and it was hard to focus because of what was happening in my body".
"I puked everywhere. I was brought into the bathroom and was puking in the sink and felt a bit better when I got it all up so I ran back out but I saw the game already kicked off. I was asking if we were down a player but then I saw Diney (Borges - his replacement) had come on".
"I'm just so proud of everyone, we went out on our shields. To a man we were excellent, to fight for so long and defend really well and try and create chances. I still haven't processed everything, the overriding feeling is that I'm just gutted".

In a time of difficulty across both Cape Verde and Ireland, Pico gave both nations a reason to feel proud and belonging, with the League of Ireland as whole getting behind the Lopes' achievement of playing in the biggest footballing event in African football.

As Shamrock Rovers fans, we felt immensely proud of our Crumlin man representing the Hoops one one of the biggest stages of them all.

Congratulations Pico, what you did was exceptional, and we're looking forward to welcoming you back to Tallaght Stadium in the coming weeks.

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