Roberto Lopes, the Green Shark

In Cape Verde, a victory in the African Cup of Nations is never trivial. Eight years ago, the Blue Sharks won for the first time the right to invite themselves to the table of the African elite. Júlio Tavares, the former striker of Dijon, is one of the few to have taken part in the three epics of Cape Verde at the CAN. As a symbol, it is the striker of Al Faisaly (Saudi Arabia) who offered with a ball the victory against Ethiopia in the opening match (1-0). Behind Tavares, on the side of the three-way defense set up by Rui Águas, Roberto Lopes lives a daydream. “I think if someone had told me five years ago: “Roberto, you are going to play the CAN with Cape Verde in 2022”, I would have laughed at him ” , bored the number 4 Cape Verdean. Modest, Roberto Lopes? Undoubtedly, but also aware of the reality. How could it be otherwise when you grow up 4,300 kilometers from the country you represent? “I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams, to find myself there. My life has changed completely. ” Sentences way too serious for a guy who has seen his life change because of a joke.

Back in 2016. A few weeks before the Irish fans contaminate France with their good humor during the Euro, Roberto Lopes releases a sentence that will change his life. At almost 24 years old, the child of Bohemian FC – the oldest club in the country founded in 1890 – has just completed his last season in his training club and is playing alongside Ayman Ben Mohamed. The future HAC player is an Irish-Tunisian binational and has just been called up for the first time by Sami Trabelsi, the Tunisian coach at the time. Lopes, who then answers a journalist’s questions, slips without really believing it: “My dad is from Cape Verde, I too could start thinking about an international career! ” A joke that goes unnoticed instantly. It must be said that at the time, becoming international was not really the priority of “Pico” (“the solid child”, the nickname given by his father).

“Thank God, we saved the testicles”

Roberto lives in Crumlin, a neighborhood “Ideal for raising a family” in Dublin, where he grew up with his parents and two brothers. His club does not have the resources to spin professional contracts worthy of the name, the young Irishman, who has just completed a bachelor’s degree at the university, works in a bank, first as a teller, before being promoted as a broker in mortgage. He is not really passionate about his job, and the days are long: “I would get up at 7:30 am, I would have breakfast and I would go up to my cash register to go work in a bank where I worked from 9 am to 5.30 pm to 6 pm, Roberto replays. Then I had to hurry to go train with the Bohemians. Behind it, I went home, I ate and then I went to sleep. The next day it was the same. In short, it was hard. ” At the end of the calendar year (2016), when the Shamrock Rovers offered him a pro contract, Lopes put an end to the hellish pace by agreeing to join the rival of the Bohemians.

No more endless days, room for recovery and weight training: Roberto Lopes now has everything of a lambda professional player. The beginning of a fairy tale? It sounds like it, although from his second season with the Irish Premier League juggernaut could have been his last. “The morning of a game against the Bohemians, I woke up with pain in my lower abdomen and thought I had a stomach cramp or something like that” , explains Roberto. The rest will amaze you … “And then gradually, I understood that the pain was in the testicles. I called the doctor who told me to come. It took me 15 minutes to get there and by that time the pain had increased tenfold. The doc told me: “Yes, you twisted your testicle.”  » The pain is more and more excruciating, his mother takes him to the hospital for an operation and the happy end finally arrives: “We saved the testicles, thank God! ” smiles the one who is not a eunuch today. “I would have liked to tell you a good story, where something happened with my girlfriend, but no … I think I just slept in a bad position.” ”

What does it play in a professional football career? To a nightmarish day like this or to a LinkedIn message left in “seen”. In Pico’s case, it was the second option that nearly cost him the most. Registered on the favorite social network of forties in search of inspiring stories, Roberto receives a message in Portuguese in October 2018 from a certain Rui Águas. He ignores it, thinking it is spam. Eleven months later, Águas returns to the charge with an “Inmail” in crystal clear English: “The opportunity still stands, have you thought about it?” ” . The Irish central defender then decides to translate the first message from his future coach. As he deciphers Eusebio’s language, it liquefies. “The coach told me he was looking for new players for the national team, he wanted to know if I was interested. I apologized so much for responding almost a year later … (Laughs.) » . A month later, on October 10, 2019, Roberto Lopes was invited to Marseille, at the Parsemain stadium, for his first cap against Togo in a friendly (2-1 victory). The first chapter of his new life.

Cape Town or not Cape Verde?

At the heart of the Cape Verdean selection, Roberto Lopes arrives “In a second family” about which he hardly knows anything. “Obviously, before arriving, I was a little nervous, because I didn’t know if the guys were going to speak English or not, if it was going to do so., explains Lopes. But they were great from the start. ” On the second day, the traditional song hazing of the newcomers must be done in Cape Verdean Creole. An unforeseen event that pushes Roberto to rush to Spotify and fall back on a song called “Dança Mami Creola” by local legend Tito Paris. “It wasn’t terrible, believe me, but I gave the best of myself! ” A default choice that might not have been one if, as a kid, Roberto had bathed in the culture of his home country. Because even if he went twice to the island of São Nicolau, the family land where his grandfather lives, no one had ever spoken Creole to him at home. “My father left Cape Verde when he was sixteen, he went to Portugal, then he worked as a sailor on Danish ships. He has traveled the world and one day he met my mother, then on a humanitarian mission, on an Irish boat. The rest is history! ” Roberto chuckles. The sea air is what perhaps pushes the 29-year-old today to spend his free time mainly on the side of Dún Laoghaire, a promontory famous in the Irish capital for its walks and refreshing swimming.

A quieter corner than the land of surfing that is Cape Verde and Roberto, pushed by Leah, her history teacher girlfriend, discover little by little. Even if the language barrier does not allow him to advance as much as he would like. “Obviously, by dint of being around us, he understands better, but he is still far from speaking it” , explains Steven Fortes. The Lensois, loaned to Ostend and who plays alongside Pico in defense, nevertheless praises his new teammate’s willingness to integrate “Rather calm and collected” . “He really makes the effort to integrate, and we, when we’re with him, we translate things to him when everyone is laughing or when there is a delirium so that he is not like an idiot in the among us, what. ” By his own admission, these moments of hesitation amuse more the person concerned who also goes there from his anecdote: “A lot of players speak Creole on the pitch, and I remember that a few months ago, our goalkeeper Marçio said something to me like: “Win, Win, Win” in the sense “wins the ball”. I understood: “Calm, Calm, Calm.” So I said to him: “Sorry Marçio, next time use another word if you can!” »

Ball in the foot, on the other hand, Roberto Lopes has no problem making himself understood by his teammates. “Reputed to be strong on man” According to Fortes, the one who dreamed of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho’s Brazilian teenager admits that he does not really have the same characteristics as his youthful idols: “At first glance, it’s true that I could physically resemble a technical Brazilian player, but I have more the qualities of a true defender. (Laughs.) » This is good: to go far in this CAN, Cape Verde will need a solid rearguard to face the formidable attacks from Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria or Senegal. With the dream of going to the end? Roberto wants to believe it: “In the tunnel, before our first match, I didn’t think of anything other than the upcoming match. But the day before and even the day before, I realized how far I had come by telling myself that a few years ago I was playing football, of course, but I was also working in a bank. If we win the CAN? I think I could party for a year. ”

By Andrea Chazy
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