From Tallaght to Cape Verde: A League of Ireland star’s remarkable 12 months

THREE YEARS AGO, Roberto Lopes was trying to make ends meet, playing football part-time for Bohemians while working in a bank.

Now, he is an FAI Cup winner widely regarded as one of the best defenders playing domestically and a senior international with dreams of lining out in the Africa Cup of Nations.

It’s been quite a journey and 2019 has surely been his best campaign yet.

The season culminated with Rovers ending a 32-year wait for FAI Cup glory, beating league champions Dundalk on penalties, after a dramatic 1-1 draw that saw two goals scored in the dying minutes.

The Hoops must have felt like they had to win the cup twice on that afternoon, after Aaron McEneff’s late penalty was cancelled out by Michael Duffy’s spectacular effort with virtually the last kick of the 90 minutes.

Lopes and the rest of the Rovers defence held firm thereafter, as the Hoops gained a vital piece of silverware that represented tangible progress in Stephen Bradley’s fourth year in charge.

“It’s funny, it probably was relief more than anything,” Lopes tells The42, when asked about that memorable victory at the Aviva last November. “The match itself was a rollercoaster. You think you have it won in the last minute and obviously they go and score in the last few seconds. Then you have the whole extra time and penalties.

“You have no words, you don’t know what to say [at the end]. You’re just happy it’s over and it’s not until the days after that you start to enjoy it more and you realise it was a great day.

In addition to the ecstasy of the moment, winning the cup also went some way towards quelling the sense of frustration with how Rovers’ league campaign had panned out.

On the one hand, the season can be looked back on with great pride. They finished second, a place higher than the previous year, and ended the campaign on 75 points — 13 more than they registered in 2018.

Yet there was a point where they looked like serious title contenders. They held a significant lead over Dundalk. Ultimately though, they could not maintain their impressive early-season form. They stuttered particularly in the second half of the campaign, dropping points in games it was felt they should have won. The Lilywhites claimed a fifth title in six years relatively comfortably in the end, wrapping up the triumph by September, with a 3-2 win over Rovers confirming them as champions to add insult to injury.

But despite the 11 points that separated the teams at the Premier Division’s conclusion this year, Lopes is optimistic his side are closing the gap, as the cup final performance suggested, with Rovers having failed to beat Vinny Perth’s men on the previous four occasions the teams met in 2019.

“I think the important part this year was to win some sort of silverware as a group together to show we can compete with the likes of Dundalk,” Lopes says.

“You look back at a few games throughout the year. Games where we were comfortable but let [the opposition] get back into it. I think we’ll look back at the whole season and take out these points and realise was there something in terms of our attitude during the games — games that we think we had won. We’ve a lot more work to do in those particular games.

“The league was still a big margin when they won it, but in terms of getting them in the Aviva in the cup final and then beating them, it was a match where it was probably a turning point for ourselves — to do it on that stage in the cup final, it does show the gap has definitely closed.

He continues: “The gaffer’s been brilliant. The one thing I will say is the way the team plays is constant throughout no matter what happens. He’s never like ‘right, stop this’. He stuck to our principles, he stuck to what he believes in. He stuck to the way that he thought we were capable of playing.

“That’s been a big thing — we have an identity now. A lot of people have seen us in the last season, we play a particular brand of football, the way we want to play and the way we express ourselves.”

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Rovers’ determination to win a first league title is perhaps emphasised by the fact that on the day this interview was conducted, 9 December, Lopes and his colleagues were already back in pre-season training, despite their opening fixture against Bohs not taking place until 14 February.

“You don’t really need that long of a break,” he explains. “We had four weeks off and then you’re back in the gym. If it was any longer, you’d be sitting around looking to fill your day. It’s just great to be in with all the lads. It gets the atmosphere and the bonding going. And for any new players coming in, it’s great to meet everybody before you start going back on the pitch. Myself, I love being around it again and having everything back.”

Lopes will look back on 2019 as a standout year for his Rovers exploits alone, but it was made all the more special as he made his international debut for Cape Verde in a 2-1 friendly win over Togo.

Born in Crumlin and a former Ireland underage international, Lopes qualifies for Cape Verde through his father. His debut may never have come about were it not for the persistence of the national team’s head coach Rui Aguas.

“Through LinkedIn I got a message from the manager,” Lopes recalls. “I left it unread for about a year because it was in Portuguese. I thought it was a welcome message or spam, so I left it.

“I thought I’d like to be involved. I didn’t know about it a year before because I didn’t understand the language.

“There was a response then and it was passed down to the president of the Cape Verde Football Federation. Luckily enough, I was involved in the squad then for the two friendlies. It was a terrific experience.”

With a population of around 550,000 according to the most recent figures, Cape Verde is not exactly a footballing powerhouse, nor is it ever expected to become one.

They have never qualified for the World Cup, but reached the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time ever in 2013, getting to the quarter finals, and then again in 2015, where they bowed out in the group stages.

Lopes will be hoping to help the team qualify for the 2021 edition of the competition, which takes place in Cameroon.

They have already played two of their six qualifying games, drawing both, and they lie third in a four-team group with two qualification places up for grabs. 

A number of the country’s players operate in some of the stronger leagues in Europe – Feyenoord, PAOK, Lens and Partizan are among the clubs represented in the squad.

“When I saw the standard, I was like: ‘Jesus, we have a good team here.’ The quality was very high,” Lopes recalls.

“I didn’t feel like I was out of place and that was probably the big thing going into it. I had all these questions. Would I be okay? Would it be too much for me? 

“A good few of them have really good English. They play all over. Some of them play in Holland and Bulgaria. At first, when I went in there, I didn’t realise that, because everyone speaks Creole when they’re around together. So it’s easy to communicate.”

And as memorable as the past 12 months have been, Lopes is optimistic 2020 can be even better for club and country alike. 

Having finally ended their FAI Cup barren run, the 27-year-old is hopeful he can help inspire the Hoops to a first league triumph since 2011 in the forthcoming campaign.

“As seasons have gone on, players have come and go. Our style of play has gotten much better. We can see the ideas the gaffer has are being put into play a lot more.

“As a team, we understand our jobs and our roles. It’s about being able to translate what’s being coached onto the pitch on a Friday. We’ve been getting better and better, and hopefully we can kick on again.”

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