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Eclectic cast rubbing shoulders with superstars at Cup of Nations

Stars like Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Victor Osimhen are the headline acts at the Africa Cup of Nations but they rub shoulders at the tournament with journeymen who, for a fleeting week or two, get to enjoy an extraordinary opportunity.

The African championship boasts an increasingly eclectic cast of characters, particularly in recent decades with the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams, with many countries searching for talent beyond their shores.

It means a musician playing football in his spare time was among the more than 600 footballers at the tournament in the Ivory Coast, along with a player who was delivering takeaways just months ago and another who was first contacted on LinkedIn.

Mozambique striker Stanley Ratifo, whose side was eliminated on Monday, has returned to Pforzheim where he plays in the fifth tier of German football.

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The son of a Mozambican contract worker in the former East Germany, he was born in Halle but gave up on his dream of becoming a professional player at FC Cologne, where he made it to the fringes of the first team but was never offered a deal.

He had a music career to fall back on, however, and took up work with a label based in Pforzheim, in the southwest of Germany. He has almost 9,000 listeners a month on Spotify, and his best-known song “PradaShades” has 224,000 streams.

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“But the passion for football didn’t let me go,” he explained, so he went to the local club and asked to train and was promptly asked to join.

Once back playing regularly, he approached Mozambique. They invited him to come and play and he scored on his debut.

Now he trains daily, plays music at night and every few months goes off on international duty.

“I can walk across the street in Germany and no one knows who I am but in Mozambique people are always stopping me.”

The 20-year-old Dutch-born Miano Danilo van den Bos had also given up on a professional career at Dutch second-division outfit FC Eindhoven.

Al Nassr fans display a picture of Sadio Mane in the stands after the match Al Ettifaq at the Al-Awwal Park, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 22, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

‘IS THIS A JOKE?’

He was delivering spare ribs for a takeaway in his home town in Veldhoven before joining an academy in Spain for players looking to keep fit while searching for other opportunities in the game.

His mother is Tanzanian and the family go on holiday there every two years but he is not sure how Tanzania coach Adel Amrouche got to hear about him.

“I answered a call and it is the national coach. I thought: ‘is this a joke?’”

He was invited to a training camp before the Cup of Nations and did enough to impress and win a place in the squad. “My mother burst into tears,” he said of when he heard he had been chosen.

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Cape Verde Islands defender Roberto Lopes, whose country was a surprise Group B winner, is Dublin-born.

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Although a regular league winner with Shamrock Rovers, he had no thoughts of an international career, not least for the small Portuguese-speaking island archipelago from where his father hailed.

“I set up a LinkedIn profile when I was in college but never really looked at it. I got a message from the then-coach Rui Aguas but he wrote to me in Portuguese. I just thought it was a spam message and I took no notice of it. And then about nine months later, he messaged me back, saying, ‘Hi Roberto, have you had a chance to consider what I said to you?’” Lopes explained.

“I felt so rude for not having replied to him months earlier. I copied the message and put it into Google Translate. And it basically said: ‘We’re looking at getting new players into the Cape Verde squad and would you be interested in declaring for Cape Verde?”

Lopes said he needed no second invitation. This was before the last Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon where he played all the matches and he has continued to be a regular throughout the tournament in the Ivory Coast where the Cape Verdians have been one of the outstanding teams.

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By MARK GLEESON

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