STOUGHTON — In homes, bars, and community clubs, members of the Boston area’s large Cape Verdean community gathered Saturday morning to watch their national soccer team, which was playing for the first time in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament.
“The whole country is going crazy,” said Victor Rosa, 47, at a Stoughton club where Cape Verdeans gathered to watch their team play Ghana on Saturday. “This is the first time the country is so united. . . . Soccer is the main thing that brings us together.”
The team’s appearance was remarkable by several measures: Cape Verde, a tiny island nation of about 500,000 people off Africa’s west coast, is the smallest country ever to compete in the tournament. The team’s coach is technically on leave from his day job as an air traffic controller. And the Blue Sharks, as they are affectionately called, languished for years near the bottom of international rankings, likely because the country’s best players are routinely siphoned away by more prestigious national and club teams in Europe.
The current Cape Verdean squad defied all odds, silencing doubters by felling regional powerhouse Cameroon to qualify for the tournament, then stunning Angola with a last-minute goal to join the final eight teams standing.
The ride finally ended Saturday with a 2-0 loss to Ghana, a game that left Rosa and other local Cape Verdeans feeling down, but still proud.
“I’m sad to see them lose, but I feel happy,” said Frank Amado, a 48-year-old Braintree resident who traveled to the Stoughton club Casa Caboverdiana to watch the game. “People were saying we wouldn’t make it at all, so most of all, I’m proud.”
Also attending were relatives of Cape Verde coach Lúcio Antunes, who has become a beloved national figure in Cape Verde.
When Antunes sang a few lines from a popular Cape Verdean ballad at a press conference after 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 Antunes’s sister, Helena “Ducha” Antunes, at Casa Caboverdiana. “It means a lot for our country.”
Antunes said she helped raise her brother in Cape Verde, and remembers scolding him for disappearing “for hours” to practice soccer — something she now regrets. “I see him on TV now, and I say, ‘OK, fine,’ ” she laughed.
Antunes and other Cape Verdean expatriates watched the game intently from rows of chairs in the small room.
They stood and cheered whenever cameras showed Coach Antunes, booed officials loudly for a questionable call, and hurled insults in Cape Verdean 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 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, the 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 triumph equivalent to Adam Vinatieri’s January 2002 “Snow Bowl” field goal or Bobby Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup dive. It’s a moment every Ghanaian soccer fan remembers, he said.
But 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. When the final whistle sounded on the television in Stoughton on Saturday, groans of disappointment quickly gave way to a tearful standing ovation. It was a heartfelt show of appreciation for a team that brought home a measure of prestige, if not a cup.
“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.”