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The Irish-born defender set to embark on an African adventure

Roberto Lopes is preparing to represent Cape Verde in the Africa Cup of Nations.

Roberto Lopes (file pic).
Roberto Lopes (file pic).
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

ROBERTO LOPES has had a better 2021 than most.

In addition to playing a key part in Shamrock Rovers winning a second successive Premier Division title, he was recently nominated for PFAI Player of the Season.

Lopes is the only Hoops player to be recognised, as he vies with Bohemians’ Georgie Kelly and St Patrick Athletic’s Chris Forrester for the prize.

“To be honest, out of all the team, I’m probably surprised it’s me most,” he says.

“I think we had some outstanding individuals, the likes of Danny [Mandroiu] and Rory [Gaffney] and one or two others. From a personal point of view, I’m delighted to be considered over the league, it’s great for myself.

“I don’t like to hype myself up, but it’s nice when your fellow peers are saying either they had a difficult game against you, or they rate you really highly.”

While Lopes has enjoyed great success at club level, there was recent disappointment for the player on the international stage.

The Shamrock Rovers star was born in Dublin, but qualifies to represent Cape Verde through his father and made his debut for the country in 2019.

A 1-1 draw with Nigeria last month saw their hopes of World Cup qualification end, as they missed out on one of the five allocated spots.

“I was sick,” he recalls. “I thought we had a really good opportunity to get the job done. Obviously, I didn’t start the game particularly well, I made a hames of a header, which led to their first goal. To get an equaliser straight after that was brilliant. It was a bit of a scrappy game after that. It was just gutting to feel we were this close to making the playoffs, we just couldn’t get the other goal that would have sealed it.”

Lopes still reflects fondly on this eye-opening experience of playing in Africa.

“It could be 500 people, it could be 500,000 people and the noise is the exact same. All dancing, all music, all cheering, for both teams. It’s not sort of biased to the home nation. I remember going into the ground in Senegal, and Nigeria, and you’re getting clapped off the bus. There are big cheers going off, so the atmosphere is unbelievable.

“It’s unbelievable and I have to kind of pinch myself sometimes and say: ‘I’m actually here to play football.’ It’s incredible really, going to countries that you never dream of going to. Countries like Rwanda pop up, Mozambique. You’re going there and you get to see the culture over there.

“Every time I go to a new country, I look back at my Visas on my passport and think I’m one lucky guy.”

Travelling back and forth to Africa has not been without problems — earlier this year Lopes had to cut short one trip after discovering he would be subject to hotel quarantine upon return to Ireland — but overall he has no regrets about committing to Cape Verde.

“Not at all. It was probably out of our control. I missed out on the Mozambique game which actually guaranteed us qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations, but if I look back on the year in total and all the times I played for Cape Verde, it’s truly unbelievable. It’s been a dream come true. I’m just so proud to represent my family. I’d never see it as a hindrance.”

Lopes won’t have too long to dwell on the World Cup disappointment. The Cameroon-hosted Africa Cup of Nations gets underway on 9 January, with the defender due to fly out in late December.

With the League of Ireland season only recently ending, it means the centre-back won’t have much time to recharge the batteries.

“I’ll take maybe two weeks of mental break and then just try to keep myself ticking over training wise so I don’t lose too much fitness or sharpness before we’re due to meet up again. 

“I probably do a lot of it myself and then I’ll touch base with Darren Dillon, our strength-and-conditioning coach and the manager. We have facilities up in Rovers and I’ll get a few sessions in as well. I’ll be making sure I’m in the best shape I can be going over there.

“Around Christmas time, I love spending time with the family. My brother has a new baby [born in] May, so it’ll be her first Christmas. It would be great to spend the whole of Christmas with her. But look, I have to realise how lucky I am to have the opportunity of going away to such a prestigious tournament and I’m really looking forward to it.”

It should be pointed out that this interview was conducted over a week ago before the dangers of the Omicron variant became widely known, but Lopes at the time said his family were considering accompanying him on the voyage.

“They’re thinking about it. I know myself, from my trips away, it’s very difficult going to Africa. You need all the Covid certs. You get to the airport, you need your Visas, you need your yellow fever vaccine, which has caused a bit of difficulty as well. There are just so many things, so much hassle, going through the airport, that it may not be worth it, the way things are at the moment. But hopefully, we’ll wait and see.”

In terms of Cape Verde’s chances of making a significant impact at the tournament, Lopes says the team are optimistic about their prospects.

“First of all qualifying for this tournament in a group with Cameroon, Mozambique and Rwanda, and then the World Cup qualifiers, we got some really good experience, really good tests along the way. We played Senegal, who are one of the top African nations and the Brazil Olympic team that won Olympic gold, we beat them in June. So it was really good for confidence and getting to know each other, and just instilling a real belief that we’re actually good enough to mix it with some top teams. So I think we’ll be going over there quietly confident and hopefully, we can cause a few upsets.”

Lopes suggests the experience of playing international football, which arrived relatively late as he lined out for his debut at the age of 28, has made him a better player ultimately, and his impressive performances with Rovers this season back up that assertion.

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“There’s probably more confidence there in my ability and I think playing at the higher level, you take your experience against top players back with you, as you want to be at that level for as long as you can and you kind of bring your standards that you’ve raised your game to back home. And you try to keep your standards that high.

“I suppose you could say it’s slower because of the conditions. It’s scorching hot in places we played and some of the pitches aren’t great, but there are actually points where it’s incredibly fast, you come up against powerful and quick athletes at times in the games in their heat, you definitely feel the intensity of it.”

When pressed, he lists 22-year-old Nigeria and Napoli star Victor Osimhen as his toughest opponent to date.

“He was very good, very raw, but you can see he has talent and he just keeps going.

“He could be a 400m runner if he wanted to be, he’s just incredibly quick and sharp.”

In addition to coming up against some talented attackers, another challenge for Lopes has been learning the language, with Creole and Portuguese both widely spoken in the region.

“You get away with Portuguese but all the players in the group would be able to speak Creole and it’s difficult. 

“I think on the pitch, it’s easy. You know what you want to say. It’s when you’re having a conversation, it gets a little bit more difficult and I’m sticking at it and enjoying it. I’m learning new words every time I go down there.

“The most important thing is to practice. Everyone makes me feel comfortable to try to have a go at it and I’m getting better, or I think I am.

“If I want to speak English, there are plenty of lads there, coaches will speak English, that’s no problem. But if you’re addressing everybody, it’s Creole or Portuguese. That’s the way I’d want it and to be fair if I’m trying to speak to someone, I will try to speak Portuguese or Creole because I think that’s the right thing to do.

“I’ve been watching Pokemon in Portuguese. I actually think to myself what am I doing here, but it’s probably for the best. It’s a children’s programme and it’s the most basic language, so it was great for me and it definitely did help. Even now, if I’m watching stuff in English, there’s the option there for Portuguese subtitles, I’ll throw it on just to get a bit more familiar with it. I probably got a bit lazy with it there for a while but I’ll be back on it before January comes.”

Originally published at 06.00; Updated at 20.00

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Paul Fennessy

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