Flying high: Mourinho mentors Cape Verde’s ‘Special One’

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Story highlights

An air traffic controller coaches Cape Verde's national soccer team

Lucio Antunes has steered the football minnows to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations

He has been dubbed Cape Verde's "Special One" for his achievements

Antunes will return to the air traffic control tower when his coaching role ends

CNN  — 

Jose Mourinho might be feeling the pressure at Real Madrid, but the world’s most famous soccer coach has taken time out to help a man from a tiny island nation who fully understands the importance of high-intensity decision-making.

In one life, Lucio Antunes is an air traffic controller. In another, he is coach of the Cape Verde national football team, which this weekend will play at the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time.

“Mourinho is very friendly with the President of Cape Verde so when we qualified, the President spoke to him – and Mourinho then invited me to Real Madrid for one week,” Antunes told CNN’s Human to Hero series.

Mourinho is known as “the Special One,” a winner of major trophies at top clubs such as Real, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Porto in his native Portugal. He is one of the most sought-after coaches in world football despite his team’s difficulties in Spain this season.

Read: What can we expect from the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations?

Antunes is being hailed as Cape Verde’s very own tactical magician, having in October guided the “Blue Sharks” through the final stages of the African qualification process for the first time since the country earned independence from Portugal in 1975.

“There is only one ‘Special One,’ ” laughs Antunes. “He is fantastic, very intelligent and has a big heart – it was a pleasure to meet him.

“I attended five training sessions and two matches, talked tactics with both Mourinho and some of the players, but the main thing I learned was his clarity in terms of his communication with his squad and technical staff.”

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The 46-year-old expects to return to the control tower at the international airport on the island of Sal after his stint as national coach ends, having taken time off his day job.

He had to employ all his skills to take the islanders through a qualifying route that climaxed with a two-leg clash against Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions – four-time winners of the African trophy, and led by one of the world’s leading players, Samuel Eto’o.

“In air traffic control, we have to think very fast and take decisions very quickly – there is no time to wait,” Antune says.

“There is a lot of pressure in air traffic control because there are a lot of planes. But the air traffic controller skills help me with coaching because I am also working with a lot of pressure in football as well.”

He was appointed national team boss in July 2010, having worked as assistant coach for the previous year. He also led the nation’s under-21 team to success at the 2009 Lusophony Games for Portuguese-speaking countries.

“It is far easier to be a football coach than an air traffic controller because you have enormous responsibility when there are so many planes flying around,” Antune says.

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A fine all-round sportsman in his youth, he played for leading local football side Sporting Clube da Praia, competing in a league spread over nine of the 10 islands – with a population of just half a million – that make up Cape Verde’s archipelago.

But in 1990, a year when the islands’ unemployment rate hit a high of 20%, Antunes – who has also represented his country at basketball and table tennis – leapt at the chance to train as an air traffic controller.

Continuing his work while also playing football, Antunes went on to play for the national team, as did his father and all four his of brothers – one of whom enjoyed a successful professional career in Portugal.

One of the biggest challenges – and ironies – of his dual career is that the football federation’s limited coffers mean the air traffic controller has been unable to fly to Europe to watch those expatriate players who have come on board for Cape Verde’s continental mission.

Over the years, the emigration from the islands has been so great that the number of Cape Verdeans and their descendants living overseas now exceeds the population of those at home, so Antunes is forced to use the very simplest of methods to follow his footballers’ form.

“We have no money to fly to Europe – as it’s very expensive – so this makes my job very hard,” he says.

“So if players are playing for their European team, then we believe that they are good – and then they come to the national team. Otherwise, we just watch on TV or on DVDs that we have been sent.”

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After achieving independence as a nation, Cape Verde had to wait 17 years before winning a competitive match.

Team captain Fernando Maria Neves, known as Nando, sometimes has to pinch himself to realize the Sharks will be performing on Africa’s biggest stage.

The 34-year-old defender, who won his first cap back in 2002, has played club football in Tunisia, Qatar, Czech Republic and France, but this is a career highlight.

“To qualify my team is something special,” Nando told CNN.

“It’s a gift, first of all to even get to the Africa Cup of Nations, but then to open the tournament, I don’t think there is something better than this.”

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Cape Verde will take on host nation South Africa in Saturday’s first match in Johannesburg, and will also play Angola and 1976 champions Morocco in their Group A matches.

Despite the team’s lack of resources in the face of such experienced opposition, Nando says his team will be inspired by a sheer love of the game.

“Football in the Cape Verde is the same as religion. Everybody likes football in Cape Verde. Here it’s first you must go to church, after that you must play football.”

And Antunes is fully aware of his team’s responsibility to meet the aspirations of the Cape Verde fans.

“We recognize the effort the country has made to support us, so we will do our best to repay our country,” he said.

Cape Verde’s touchdown at the tournament should certainly be eased by having Antunes at their helm, no matter what turbulence the debutants may encounter on their maiden flight into the unknown.