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Pico Lopes & the Blue Sharks

October 27, 2019 Leave a comment

It started with a message on LinkedIn. Well two messages on LinkedIn
as Roberto ‘Pico’ Lopes thought the first one was spam! Thankfully the
Shamrock Rovers defender followed up and by doing so it led to him
making his international debut for Cape Verde earlier this month
against Togo and a game a few days later against Olympique Marseille.

“This time last year I was contacted on LinkedIn with a message that I
thought was spam as it was in Portuguese,” said Lopes when he chatted
to Hoops Scene this week about his call up for the ‘Blue Sharks’
recent matches and training camp in France.

“I got another message more recently and when I translated it I saw
they were talking about getting new players into the Cape Verde squad
and asking me was I interested in declaring. I said I’d love to make
myself available. I spoke with the vice president of their football
federation. I needed to provide my own birth cert and my Dad’s birth
cert and it went from there.”

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The Cape Verde manager, and former Portuguese striker, Rui Aguas
brought his squad together in the south of France earlier this month
ahead of the start of African Nations Cup qualifying in mid-November.
Lopes was one of a number of new players brought into the squad and he
would be one of five players to make his international debut in the
match against Togo.

“With all the new players it made it easier on the first night when we
had sing an initiation song. I was going to do something by Drake but
they said it had to be in Creole. I don’t speak the language so I had
to go and do my research. I went on Spotify and the first Cape Verdean
song I found was an old popular folk song that everyone knew so once I
started all the lads joined in. It really helped me settle in!”

What also helped the settling in process was making a winning start to
his international career. Lopes lined out with players plying their
trade right across Europe – player with clubs like AEL Limassol
(Cyprus), Excelsior (Netherlands), Atay Spor (Turkey) and, as would be
expected for a former Portuguese territory, a number of clubs from
Portugal. Cape Verde, a ten island archipelago 350 miles off north
west Africa, gained its independence from Portugal back in 1975.

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Trailing 1-0 at half time, Porto striker Ze Luis made the difference
in the second half. “Ze Luis came on and he is a beast of a man along
with all the silky skills of a top player. He gave us more bite up
top. We got two goals for the win and I was really buzzing after it.”

Later in the week Lopes got the chance to play against an Olympique
Marseille side managed by Andre Villa Boas. Cape Verde got a very
creditable 1-1 draw against a team that included internationals such
as Dimitri Payet (France), Dario Benedetto (Argentina) and Duje
Caleta-Car (Croatia). “I played in the second half against Marseille
and it was fantastic to play against some of those players.”

The excellent facilities at Rovers’ Academy set up at Roadstone pailed
in comparison to Marseilles’ La Commanderie training ground according
to Lopes. “They blew my mind. Being in the south of France helped with
the sunny weather! It was on the side of a mountain with six and seven
top quality pitches and lots of impressive buildings.

“I was able to take the two jerseys with me after the matches and they
souvenirs for my Da. It was nice to take something home as I never
thought this was going to happen for me.”

With that second game played at the weekend behind closed doors, his
family didn’t travel across but Lopes is hopeful that he could be
involved in the upcoming African Nations Cup qualifiers. If that is
the case he is hoping his family will travel out to Cape Verde and he
could spend some time after the matches in the League of Ireland
off-season with his grandfather and his family.

“Hopefully if I’m involved in the next squad, my family might join me
on holiday to where my Dad is from and visit my Grandad. I’ve been to
Cape Verde just twice before. My Granddad is in his 90s so if we go
down there I’ll go across to the island where he lives after and spend
some time with him.

“The first game is away to Cameroon and then it is home to Mozambique
so if I was involved in November I’d get a chance to go to Cameroon
too which would be a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. Once
you’ve got a taste for it, you want more so I’ll be putting my head
down and working hard for Rovers in the last few games.”

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His international call up meant that he missed his first Rovers game
of the season in the 1-0 win over Finn Harps but he was back for last
week’s 3-0 win over UCD. You had to feel a bit sorry for the Students
who were facing relegation straight in the face on the night.

Ireland international Joey O’Brien gave the Hoops a 1-0 lead, and with
Lee Grace, along with Danny Lafferty and Alan Mannus (both Northern
Ireland internationals) they were keeping Rovers’ 24th clean sheet in
the 44 first team games so far this season.

In the second half Stephen Bradley brought on two current
internationals in Lopes and Irish player Graham Burke, although the
Students could be thankful though that the sixth international in the
Hoops squad Jack Byrne was sitting amongst the Rovers supporters in
the stand in Belfield due to suspension!

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Lopes was delighted with the clean sheet, their 20th in the league
campaign which matches the 20 clean sheet haul from last season. That
compares with eight in the 2017 season and that shows the progression
for Lopes the club has made in the last few years summed up with
Rovers’ upcoming first appearance in the FAI Cup final since 2010.

“It has been a lot of hard work and building confidence in the way we
play. We have that bit of steel, getting more clean sheets and closing
the gap on Dundalk. We are competing for things as we should be and we
have chance to win something this year in the Aviva against Dundalk.

“One of the big reasons that I wanted to sign here was to develop as a
player. You look at the staff here with the gaffer (Stephen Bradley),
Stephen McPhail, Glenn Cronin and Damien Duff, when he was here, is
they are all top quality pros. I knew I’d be able to develop as a
player here and you’ve seen that across the team and the style of play
we have.

“It is the two best teams going for the cup. If you want to win things
you have to beat the best teams and Dundalk have shown what a top team
they have been over the last number of years.

“We have taken points off them and we have beaten them in big games in
recent years. We are looking forward to it. It has been so long since
a Rovers team has won the cup and a while since we have been in a
final. You can feel that energy around the place. I cannot wait to
step out on the pitch in the Aviva.”

Published in Hoops Scene 19/2019 (Shamrock Rovers v Cork City)