At the age of 24 Roberto “Pico” Lopes was a part-time centre-back with a steady day job in a bank in his native Dublin. He was freshly qualified as a mortgage adviser. A solid career was taking shape before him. He hated it.
Three years later he is a professional footballer who hopes to lift his first major trophy on Sunday before embarking this month on the Africa Cup of Nations qualification campaign with Cape Verde Islands, from where his father comes and for whom he made his debut in October. “It’s crazy, so surreal,” he says before explaining how excited he is about the new direction his career has taken and the cultural awakening it has inspired – and how close he came to missing out on all that because of an embarrassing social media mix-up and a twisted testicle. Those last two things, it should be made clear right now, were not related.
Where to start? How about with when Lopes was a teenager, because back then an international football career did not seem so improbable: he had, after all, played alongside John Egan, now of Sheffield United, in central defence for the Republic of Ireland Under-19s. Lopes was playing for Bohemians, a top-flight League of Ireland club without the resources to give players professional deals. Five years later Lopes was still playing for them while advancing in the bank.
Then Shamrock Rovers – Bohemians’ better-heeled arch-rivals – offered him a two-year deal to leave his boyhood club and his day job. It was a risk, as even Rovers could not offer the sort of money that would make quitting a secure job prudent. “I just thought: ‘Worry later about what happens next; at least I’ll be happy for a few years,’” says Lopes. “And then it took off. It’s been a dream.”
Mostly. There was a scare a few months later when he woke one morning with a pain in a testicle. He rolled over and hoped it would go away. It got worse. “I called the doctor and he told me come in. It took me 15 minutes to get there and by that time the pain had multiplied by 10. He said: ‘Yeah, you’ve twisted your testicle’ and started explaining the possibilities. I said: ‘Yeah, I don’t care, take them both off if you want, just make the pain stop!’ So he wrote me a reference for the hospital. I had to go straight there because apparently there’s a six- to eight-hour window in which your testicle can be saved. I had to drive to me ma’s to get her to take me to hospital. I was driving with my leg out the window at one stage just trying to get some pain relief.”
He made it to the hospital, was treated quickly and two weeks later, once the stitches had healed, he was back in action for Rovers.
Lopes has helped Rovers do well domestically and qualify for Europe every season. On Sunday they will contest the FAI Cup final against Dundalk. “But still, even at the start of this season I’d never have said I’d become an international footballer,” he says. That was despite the fact that Cape Verde’s manager, Rui Águas, had been in touch. Lopes had blanked him.
“I’ve been a member of LinkedIn since college and one day I was just doing up my profile and I remember connecting with Rui Águas after his name popped up. Then a while later I received a message from him. It was in Portuguese and I just thought it was spam so took no notice. That was in October 2018. Then in September of this year I got another message saying: Did you think about it?’ I was like: ‘Oh, what’s this?’ So I translated the [original] message. They were looking at players who might be interested in declaring.”
Lopes cannot help laughing as he continues the story. “I was straight back in there apologising with my tail between my legs saying: ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese but I’d love to be involved if it’s not too late.’ Lucky enough, he said: ‘That’s great, give me your mobile.”
And lo, Lopes made his international debut in a friendly against Togo in France last month, then played in a behind-closed doors match against Marseille. He feels he did well but does not know whether he will be included in the squad for this month’s qualifier in Cameroon. He has no doubt, though, that he has been enriched.
“Cape Verde has always been part of my identity but mainly because there are not many Roberto Lopeses floating around Crumlin so when people would hear your name they’d always ask: ‘Where are you from?’ and I’d explain that my da’s from Cape Verde and then have to explain where that is,” says Lopes, adding that he has met only one other Cape Verdean person in Ireland. “It’s only really now that I’m delving deeper into the culture and the heritage. It makes you proud. Even my girlfriend Leah, who’s a history teacher, has been looking into the history of the country. It’s really interesting. Being involved with the team just opened my mind and made me realise how much I didn’t know.”
The realisation started with his initiation, when he had to sing in front of the squad. “I was thinking I’d do something handy, maybe Drake, but they said: ‘No, no, it has to be a Creole song.’ So after lunch I went up to my room and on to Spotify and found a song called Dança Mami Creola. I went down and as soon as I sang the first line, everybody joined in. I probably got it wrong but everybody was so supportive that it turned out to be a bit of craic and a great way to help me settle in.
“It was such a positive environment. And it was really inspiring to be part of when you see how much playing for the country means to them, how dedicated they are to it even in a friendly with no fans.”
“And my dad, when I came back from the trip, he was just beaming,” says Lopes of his father, Carlos, who left his homeland at 16 and spent years travelling as a ship’s chef before opening a cafe in Belgium, going on a holiday to Ireland and, in the words of Roberto, “finding me ma!”
“There are more Cape Verdians living abroad than in the islands themselves,” says Lopes. “And they’re very active on social media. All the family across the world have been in touch to congratulate my dad; uncles were sharing posts from various Cape Verdian pages; and I’ve heard from cousins I never knew I had. It’s just a real buzz around the family. It makes you proud.
“And to think I nearly missed out on all that because I didn’t reply to a LinkedIn message. I reply to everyone now!
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