Roberto Lopes cannot bear to think what would have happened if Rui Aguas had not been persistent enough to message him a second time.
The former Cape Verde coach first contacted the Shamrock Rovers defender via LinkedIn in 2018. He wanted to discuss the prospect of him playing for the national team because he was eligible through his father. Lopes ignored it. He does not speak Portuguese.
“I started the account for college years ago and used it sparingly,” he tells Sky Sports. “You would get these spam messages and I just thought this was another one. Thankfully, he wrote back in English. That is what set me off on this incredible adventure.”
Three years on and Dublin-born Lopes still plays for Shamrock Rovers. Everything else has changed. He is now in Cameroon preparing to compete in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.
Aside from “that constant worry that it is going to be your unlucky day and you will test positive” there is nothing but excitement. “I cannot wait,” he says. “I have been buzzing about this tournament ever since we qualified for it. I am so excited about it.”
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The call-up has done more than change his career. It has transformed his life.
“I am going to places that I would never have gone to on holiday. Seeing the appreciation they have for what they have, it has opened my mind. I am eager now to try new things. I am so eager to learn the language and the culture, learn about Africa as a continent.”
Senegal was beautiful. The trip to Rwanda particularly special. “The country has a terrible history but I was just fascinated by it. The people were so nice. We were able to do a tour of the burial grounds which was really shocking but it was important to see.”
Roberto Lopes has grown from visits to Rwanda and Senegal in his international career
It is not just the experiences that have changed him.
It is his own relationship with his own roots.
“We did not speak Creole growing up. I probably did not pay as much attention as I could have done or should have done. I kick myself for not doing so. I am eager to learn more about my family and my heritage. I am digging deeper trying to immerse myself in it.”
Though he still has family on the island, father Carlos left at 16. He was a ship’s chef working out of Belgium before a chance meeting led to a job offer on a ferry to Ireland. “He ended up going with them, fell in love with Ireland and my mam, and the rest is history.”
Reconnected with Cape Verde has brought such joy. “When I made my debut my dad was so proud. I think I put Cape Verde on the map in Ireland because everyone I meet asks me about it. The trips I go on and the places I get to see, they are just buzzing for me.”
The change is all the more remarkable given that it was not so long ago that Lopes had all but given up on a professional career. “I have always been a realist. I was 22 and playing in the League of Ireland, which I loved, but I thought the chance to play abroad was over.”
He spent two years working in a bank as a mortgage advisor. “The League of Ireland at the time was not as strong. You could not get a mortgage doing it so I figured that I would need to find a career if I wanted to continue playing football as well.”
Roberto Lopes abandoned a banking career to focus on full-time football
But he soon realised banking was not for him and threw himself back into football. “I still had more to give and I was not enjoying the work.” He opted for a full-time professional contract with Shamrock Rovers. “It was one of the best decisions I have made.”
At 29, he is a better player now. In part, because of the opportunity to play for Cape Verde. “It has brought my game – physically and mentally – to another level,” he explains.
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“The competition you are up against gives you that confidence to go to the next level. You go back to your club and are determined to keep it going because you know that the next time you meet up with the national team the standards are going to be high again.”
That might be a surprise to some but there is quality in the team.
“It has opened my eyes because here in Ireland we think of the Premier League as the best. The others do not get the credit they deserve. We have players from Turkey and Bulgaria where they are producing top quality. We think we can really hurt teams.”
Sunday 9th January 6:55pm
They will be tested at this tournament. First up is Ethiopia but there is also a game looming against hosts Cameroon in front of a crowd in Yaounde that could be as high as 60,000.
“Having the hosts in our group is a good and a bad thing. You know they will have full backing but at the same time we get to play in front of a full crowd in one of the biggest tournaments. All the games are going to be tough but I am really looking forward to it.”
It is an experience that he so nearly missed out on.
“Even looking back now I cannot believe how rude I was to ignore it just because it was in Portuguese. All I had to do was copy and paste it into google translate, which I did later on.
“I am just blessed and so thankful to Rui Aguas who had the time and patience to write back to me in English. I have learned my lesson since. I check LinkedIn every day. And ever since that message, I have never looked past a LinkedIn message again.”
Watch Ethiopia vs Cape Verde live on Sky Sports Football from 6.55pm on Sunday; kick-off 7pm
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