The Blue Sharks from the Cape Verde Islands used to be known as one of the minnows in African football. Ten years ago, Cape Verde was rated one of the weakest African teams by FIFA, world football’s governing body. In October 2002, FIFA had the Blue Sharks ranked 41st out of 52 African teams, and 155 overall. But thanks to an ambitious program to find top talent with ties to the small, Portuguese-speaking island archipelago, Cape Verde has made dramatic strides over the past decade.

In this month’s FIFA rankings, Cape Verde is ranked 10th among African teams, and 51st overall. The Blue Sharks recently eliminated four-time champion Cameroon, 3-2 on aggregate over two legs, in one of the biggest upsets in African Nations Cup qualifying history. As a result, Cape Verde is headed to South Africa in January to make its first ever appearance in African football’s premier event. With a population of 500,000, Cape Verde will also become the smallest country to compete at the Nations Cup finals.

In an interview with Reuters, Cape Verde’s head coach Lucio Antunes said, “We now have about 90% of our squad members who are playing at clubs in Europe, in Portugal, France, Spain, Holland and other countries. These are professional players who are desperate to show what they can do at the Nations Cup finals.”

Ryan Mendes

Ryan Mendes is one of the Europe-based professionals who has shown what he can do during the Nations Cup qualifying campaign. The 22-year-old striker, who plays for Lille in the French league, has led the attack for the Blue Sharks with three goals, tying him with eight other players as top goalscorer in 2013 Nations Cup qualifying. Mendes has played for Cape Verde at the U-16 and U-21 youth levels. The Blue Sharks also feature several other young players, with most based in Portugal, the country Cape Verde won independence from in 1975.