Away from questions about whether the upcoming African Cup of Nations (AFCON) would take place amid the pandemic, the tiny archipelago nation of Comoros has been preparing for its debut on the continent’s biggest stage.
The achievement of qualifying for Africa’s biennial football tournament is difficult to overstate given the size and footballing history of Comoros.
Located just off the east coast of Africa, it is the continent’s fourth-smallest country with a population of less than 900,000. Nicknamed Les Coelacanthes (the Coelacanths) — that moniker coming from a rare species of tropical fish which inhabits the native waters of the Indian Ocean — the team was only admitted as a member of FIFA, football’s global governing body, in 2005.
The dream of reaching the AFCON finals became a reality in March 2021 after a typically hard-fought 0-0 draw against Togo, but the story of Comoros’ unlikely success can be traced back to 2014 when head coach Amir Abdou took over with a new vision for the team.
In light of Comoros’ limited footballing infrastructure, Abdou chose to lean on the nation’s diaspora, particularly in France, to find the best set of players possible. Speaking to CNN Sport, Abdou admitted that this was no easy process as many of the players, having been born and brought up in Europe, were uncertain about the prospect of competing for Comoros.
“When you are a small country proposing a project to these players, it’s very difficult to get them to say I want to come to Comoros when we don’t know what we can offer in terms of safety,” he said.
Abdou took a frank approach to the persuasion process and met with the players in question to build meaningful relationships with them: “We had a conversation with all our national players which was very important to convince them and build a mutual trust between us.”
The beginning of the journey
One of the players convinced by Abdou’s project is Fouad Bachirou, Comoros’ 31-year-old midfielder who currently plays for FC Omonia in Cyprus. Bachirou first joined up with the team in 2014 and credits the manager with creating a competitive environment that was attractive to himself and his teammates alike.
“2014 was when everything changed — when Amir came into place and decided to look all around the world for players,” he told CNN, “and to try to put more organization around the whole national team, the whole federation. That made a big impact for most of the players when they came around.”
Abdou is keen to deflect that praise back on to his players, who he refers to as “true patriots because the love that they have for their country goes beyond football.”
That patriotic sentiment is affirmed by a number of the players’ emotions when they look back at the otherwise innocuous stalemate with Togo in March 2021. Bachirou regards it as “the best moment of his career in football,” while his teammate and compatriot Said Bakari, who plays for RC Waalwijk in the Dutch Eredivisie, referred to the end of the match as a “really beautiful moment.”
Abdou and his players are not the only ones who reveled in the team’s qualification success. The team has long had a strong following on the islands, and the upturn in fortunes in recent years has turned that sentiment into full-fledged fanaticism.
“When the team arrives in Comoros [for matches],” said Abdou, “the country stops 15 days before. The country stops, and the people live through the team.
“There is a joy, not just a joy but an explosion — as if we have won the World Cup or the Champions League. It’s amazing. It’s completely mad and difficult to describe.”
Bakari couldn’t hide his smile while speaking to CNN about the scenes in the archipelago in the immediate aftermath of the result against Togo. “All I can tell you is that it was crazy. All the people became crazy,” he said.
Bachirou seconded the notion. “Every game we played before, it always felt like a celebration, the result didn’t matter,” he said, “but this qualification just took it to another level. It felt like people were celebrating for days, weeks.
“We are a small country, a poor country, so to bring a smile, to bring joy to people was a feeling we are really proud of.”
‘We have to believe in ourselves’
The AFCON group stage draw certainly wasn’t easy on Comoros, which feature in Group C alongside continental mainstays Ghana, Morocco and Gabon. Les Coelacanthes‘ campaign begins on January 10 against Gabon in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Abdou and his players certainly aren’t afraid of the challenges ahead. The team has been preparing at training camp in Saudi Arabia, and the coach was keen to emphasize that his team is comfortable in the face of such stern opposition and, in fact, can play with more freedom than its counterparts.
“These are teams that we know. Playing against these types of teams makes us feel even better and it is playing against these teams that motivate us to go there and get results,” Abdou says.
“We have to believe in ourselves — the pressure will not be on us, it will be on the other teams from bigger countries.”
The players think their close bond and European influences have contributed to their success and hope that it can continue into the competition proper.
Bakari described the relationship between the teammates as being “like brothers,” while Bachirou noted that “we all were born and grew up in Europe, and we can bring that tactical experience — that’s how we became a difficult team to beat.”
Quantifying what success would look like for a team like Comoros in its first-ever major tournament is a difficult thing.
The players are focused on embracing the lack of pressure and enjoying the tournament, while not forgetting the competitive mindset that served them so effectively in the qualification process.
“For us, it is a dream. For me, it is a dream to represent my country in this kind of tournament,” Bakari said. “You play against the best players in Africa, the best players in the world. We are not afraid, like I said, and we’re just trying to go as far as possible.”
“We are competitors, so we want to win games,” said Bachirou. “What got us to qualify and to be here was to believe that we could win games and be competitive and want to win, so we’re going to go and have the same mentality to try and win as many games as we can.”
Bachirou’s thoughts then turned back to the potential scale of the celebrations on the islands if results do start going the way of Les Coelacanthes.
“If success is to happen in this competition, I am quite scared for Comoros, to be honest. I’m not sure the islands will be able to hold on to the people. That would be incredible, it would be amazing.”
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