Cape Verde's Ryan Mendes aiming for unlikely UAE title

Cape Verde and Sharjah's Ryan Mendes
Cape Verde's Ryan Mendes has helped Sharjah to challenge for a title in the United Arab Emirates (photo courtesy of Arabian Gulf League)

Cape Verde's Ryan Mendes is putting a poor Africa Cup of Nations campaign behind him as he nears a surprise Arabian Gulf League (AGL) title.

The 29-year-old's four goals and nine assists have helped Sharjah to the verge of a first UAE championship for 23 years.

"Nobody expected it at the start of the season but we have kept the momentum going," Mendes tells BBC Africa.

"We are where we are now because of the friendship that has been created inside this team, and all the positive energy we have received from our fans - that has given us the power to be in this place.

"I feel personally that I have worked very hard and we as a team have worked very hard this season.

"We haven't won the title yet but of course if we become champions it will be something very special for me - it will be one of the most important moments of my career."

Currently top of the table it has been an unlikely ascent for Sharjah, who were only promoted back to the AGL in 2013 and escaped relegation by just two points in 2016.

They also operate with significantly less financial resources than some of their more well-heeled rivals in the UAE.

Targeting 2022

Cape Verde and Sharjah's Ryan Mendes
Ryan Mendes played for Cape Verde at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013 and 2015

His success in the UAE is happening after Mendes and his team-mates failed to qualify for a third Africa Cup of Nations.

They eventually finished bottom of a group that included Uganda, Tanzania and Lesotho - a pool they would have believed they could have progressed from.

Despite this setback, Mendes is not only keen for club success but also believes that the 2022 World Cup is a realistic aim.

Cape Verde have never played at the tournament, coming closest in 2013 when they beat Tunisia in qualifying only to be sanctioned for fielding an ineligible player - losing their place in the final playoffs.

But with an expanded 48-team World Cup in Qatar a possibility for 2022, Mendes is targeting a maiden appearance.

"It was difficult for us in Nations Cup qualifying. The group we had wasn't the strongest but we weren't good enough and there were some bad moments - for this we were sorry for our fans," he said.

"But now it is passed and we move our focus forward. We have some exciting young players and I think they will help our national team.

"The World Cup is our target and are objective. We were close to qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil and I think the next time we could be there."

French beginnings

Cape Verde's Ryan Mendes in action for Le Havre
Ryan Mendes began his career as captain of French club Le Havre

Mendes's career has taken a somewhat different path to his former Le Havre team-mate Riyad Mahrez, who won the English Premier League title with Leicester City in 2016 and is challenging again this season with Manchester City.

Not only did he play alongside Mahrez but also with the Algeria striker's current Manchester City team-mate Benjamin Mendy.

Also making his way through the youth ranks at Le Harve was a 16-year-old Paul Pogba.

"People talked a lot about Pogba because then he was playing for the France youth teams and he was captain so there was a certain expectation," Mendes recalls.

"He had confidence even then because he was always a tall player - with that physique and strength he could believe in himself.

"I never played with Pogba because he was in the youth team but Mendy and Mahrez were team-mates.

"With Riyad, we had a strong feeling he would go on to big things. In training he was unbelievable. Mendy was great too but Mahrez more so.

"He had so many tricks, always dribbling. It's been great to see him do so well and we keep in touch. I was speaking to him two just weeks ago."

From Le Havre, Mendes moved to Lille, where he played European Champions League football under coach Rudi Garcia.

Mendes was one of a number of players brought in to try to fill the void left by Eden Hazard's high-profile move to Chelsea in the summer of 2012.

"To be honest I think there was more pressure on Marvin Martin than me," Mendes says.

"I was young whereas Marvin was really the guy contracted to play in Eden Hazard's position.

"But it was a great time to be at Lille. There was Dimitri Payet too, plus Salomon Kalou and Divock Origi. I was very fortunate - these are fantastic players who helped me improve.

"I still think Rudi Garcia is the best coach I have worked with until today. He was the one to give me the chance to play in the Champions League and Ligue 1.

"He always wanted to play attractive football - this was so important to him."

An English adventure

Cape Verde's Ryan Mendes playing for Nottingham Forest
Cape Verde's Ryan Mendes enjoyed his spell playing in England for Nottingham Forest

Garcia's departure at Lille coincided with a change in fortunes for Mendes and his opportunities became limited, prompting him to agree to a loan move to Nottingham Forest in the English Championship.

"Playing for Nottingham Forest was an incredible experience for me," Mendes explains.

"I remember in the first game against Queens Park Rangers thinking, 'wow, this is English football'. It is something different - the physicality, the atmosphere. The stadium was crazy.

"The stadiums are often not full here in the UAE but we are lucky at Sharjah. When I see the stadium like it is in Sharjah it reminds me of playing in England, of playing in Europe. It is very motivating."

After the loan move he spent two seasons in the Turkish Super Lig with Kayserispor before moving to the UAE.

Mendes is not the only Cape Verde international playing in the Gulf, with Garry Rodrigues (Al-Ittihad), Heldon (Al-Taawoun), Djaniny (Al-Ahli) and Gege (Al Fayha) all based in Saudi Arabia.

And the Sharjah winger admits it is beneficial having compatriots in the neighbouring Kingdom.

"It is no surprise to see more Cape Verde players in the region. Clubs are looking for good players and there are a lot of good players in Cape Verde," he explained.

"Of course the financial conditions here in UAE and Saudi Arabia are also good but the football level is high.

"It's nice to have so many Cape Verdean players in Saudi Arabia. I speak every day with Heldon because we have played together many times in the national team.

"We stayed in a hotel room together 10 years ago when we first started playing for Cape Verde. He is a good friend."

A title for Mendes in the Arabian Gulf League will see him follow other Africans to have success in the Middle East.

Algeria's Baghdad Bounedjah won the Qatari championship with a record breaking 39 goals while Morocco's Abderrazak Hamdallah could win the title in Saudi Arabia, also setting a new mark for goals.

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