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A Cape Verdean-Irish soccer star in Africa

Gus Martins
A Cape Verdean-Irish soccer star in Africa

Boston’s Irish and Cabo Verdeans share a history of Catholicism, three-decker living and colonizing Uphams Corner. Most significant to the menfolk might be the celebratory pints at nearby Dublin House.

You can now add soccer star Roberto “Pico” Lopes to that affinity. The Dublin-born defender recently represented his father’s homeland in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon, turning heads with his positive performances and garnering international exposure playing against some of the continent’s most gifted soccer players.

So good was the Shamrock Rovers’ center-back, whose mom is Irish, he was awarded “Man of the Match” in a 1-1 tie vs. Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions that propelled Cabo Verde out of group stage into the knockout round-of-16.

The only foe that proved too formidable for Lopes was a nasty case of food poisoning that sidelined him at halftime in Cape Verde’s 0-2 defeat by Senegal, as the Blue Sharks finished the contest with nine men following two red-card expulsions, ending their journey in Africa’s most prestigious tournament.

What left little room for doubt was the 29-year-old’s inspirational play, coming into the team when Cabo Verde needed strengthening in central defense.

“I think he was excellent and among Cape Verde’s most consistent performers and one of the top central defenders in the tournament’s first round,’’ said former New England Revolution midfielder Anselmo “Jair” Ribeiro, who in the early 1990s represented Cape Verde 12 times, most notably facing off against Liberia’s George Weah, a one-time World Player of the Year.

“In the group-stage matches against Burkina Faso and Cameroon, he was especially good,’’ added Ribeiro, who graduated from Boston’s Madison Park High and who has made Orlando, Florida, home for more than two decades. “He was a tremendous revelation in the tournament. As a player he is strong, showed great one-on-one defending and a very strong tactical understanding of the game.’’

Lopes, who had begun his career in banking, decided to leave the profession in his early-to-mid-20s to give professional soccer a try. He did represent Ireland at youth international levels but never got called into the senior team.

“I find myself asking what might have been if he had an opportunity to leave the banking business earlier than age 24, and had connected with the Cabo Verde team back then,’’ said Omar Oliveira, a radio host and longtime member of Boston’s CV community. “Despite seeming to be quiet, you can tell he is a leader and a fast learner.’’

Lopes, who has 269 League of Ireland Premier Division appearances for the Bohemians and the Shamrock Rovers, quickly became a fan favorite among the Cabo Verdean diaspora in Europe and the United States.

Irish native Joe Bradley, a longtime Boston-area youth soccer coach and club developer since arriving here several decades ago to attend Harvard University, said he was more than just dimly aware of Lopes back in Dublin.

“He certainly has been a well-thought-of and well-celebrated League of Ireland player,’’ said Bradley. “He definitely was a Player-of-the-Year-caliber player. And the AFCON tends to be a showcase for talent as European scouts line up to check out promising talents. I think he showed himself and that he was capable of playing against some high-level players.’’

While every young Irish soccer player’s dream is to turn professional in England, and countless have, the not-so-young Lopes might still get that chance, possibly in England’s second division, where top players still pull down hefty multimillion-dollar annual salaries.

“He’s got a bit of a bite to him,’’ said Bradley. “He’s also shown he’s got some quality to his game, and he seems like a really level-headed kid. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands in the English Championship. From what I know, that league is in the top 10 best paid leagues in the world right now, if not the top five. Wouldn’t that be a great way to finish his career!’’

Various stories have circulated regarding Lopes’ decision to play for Cabo Verde. One was he was sent correspondence leading to the 2015 tournament but written in Portuguese, a language he does not speak, so he never took the letters of inquiry seriously. His father, Carlos, could have easily ameliorated any language barrier.

The most credible story appears to be that after watching Cabo Verde’s first appearance in AFCON in 2013, a tournament held in South Africa, he became impressed by the team’s performance and expressed interest in one day playing for them.

By then he had already represented Ireland’s U-19s in international competition and would have to get approval from FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to change his national allegiance, while also getting the blessing of the Irish FA, who could have probably stood in his way.

Lopes, who was said not to be overly fond of banking, mostly likely won’t be returning to his white-collar drudgery but could be up for another AFCON in two years’ time.

“He really showed a lot, considering all the African teams came to the tournament with their best players,’’ said Ribeiro. “At 29, he should still have the ability to play at a high level for another three to four years. He definitely could represent Cabo Verde in the next AFCON if they qualify, because 31 is a perfect age for a defender. You could just see in his game he had a lot of experience and maturity.’’

And with many millions of eyes on him, he stood firm in the tropical Central African heat, playing with a fair bit of pride and a strong dose of joy.

“Everyone was saying how he held down the fort and they were wishing we had a few more Picos out there,’’ Oliveira added. “Folks were eager to learn more about him. Stories were shared by so many in social media.’’