African Cup of Nations: the crazy team of the Comoros

They are there and it’s amazing: the players of the Comoros, with the gratin of continental football for this African Cup of Nations in Cameroon, representing for the first time their small archipelago of 850,000 inhabitants, a real feat. Defeated by Gabon for their entry into the competition (1-0), they face Morocco this Friday, January 14 with the firm intention of showing that they are not “not here by chance”, insists their coach Amir Abdou.

→ REREAD. CAN 2022: figures of African football denounce the contempt of which the competition would be the victim

He knows well, the master at playing, what they went through to be able to jump into the big leagues. An incredible outfit combining determination, consistency, friendships and the fervor of an entire people. A rare story, written out of nothingness and with uncertain ink.

The incredible energy of coach Amir Abdou

Because what are the Comoros on the football planet, when the adventure begins in 2014? The microstate vaguely has a national team recognized by the International Federation (Fifa) only in 2005, and at the bottom of the hole in the early 2010s. Due to lack of money, the team cannot participate in the playoffs of the CAN 2013. For two years, the Comoros therefore disappear from the international circuit.

To rebuild on this nothing, the local Federation hopes to recruit Henri Stambouli, ex-trainer of Marseille in the 1990s. Except that the negotiations fall apart at the last moment. And so here is on the track the one who was to play the assistants, Amir Abdou. A former amateur player forced to put away his crampons due to injuries, the Franco-Comorian, who lives in the south-west of France, converted to an educator, and then coaches an honorary division team (sixth level national). At the same time, he exercises his profession as a territorial civil servant in the youth service of his small town of Bon-Encontre, near Agen (Lot-et-Garonne).

Amir Abdou therefore finds himself almost by default embarked on a project which he will completely take over, with mad energy. To rebuild the selection from A to Z, he is betting on the French diaspora and the very large community, established mainly in the Marseille region. It is still necessary to convince these dual nationals to try the adventure. But he knows how to find the words, and make the conquered troops stay.

Crazy proportions

The results help, the selection going from 193and at 127and world rank in three years. Corn “It’s a permanent fight”, says the coach. And with inevitably reduced means in one of the poorest countries in the world. He himself is only employed by the Federation from 2017. He must struggle to structure a framework worthy of players accustomed to European standing, even if it is that of the lower divisions. The Federation does not have an equipment supplier? A local brand is created, Maana Sport, which supplies free of charge, without a real contract.

And the case progresses, with ups and downs. On the archipelago, the enthusiasm for breeding is taking on crazy proportions. For the worse sometimes. During the CAN 2017 qualifying campaign, after missing the equalizing penalty against Uganda, the players left the stadium under stones. “Hell, summarizes Amir Abdou in an interview with the Bal des productions press agency. But we hung on. »

So comes the best, often. On the second day of qualifying for the current CAN, the Comoros won, in their new Malouzini stadium in Moroni financed by Chinese capital, an unexpected 0-0 draw against the Egyptian giant. The crowd massed in the stands, filled to double the capacity of the enclosure, surges onto the lawn. The announcer screams to ask for the evacuation, arguing for a possible cancellation of the result. In less than three minutes, the supporters wisely resume their place in the stands!

popular fervor

Above all, we must not hinder the march of national heroes who will qualify a few months later, triggering incredible popular jubilation. The team pleases all the more that it does not crown any star. Bonus to the collective, with 17 players out of 28 playing in France. “This group is above all a family before being a football team”, underlined the sports director Djamal Mohamed before the start of the CAN. The subject is not overused.

And the team, which has reached maturity (28 years on average), hopes to establish itself in the landscape. After two years without an equipment supplier, a new Italian partner (Macron Sports) is at its side for four years, and a new federal management is thinking about a more sustainable development, allowing to convince even more dual nationals to join the “Cœlacanthes”, the nickname of the selection. They are there, and maybe for a long time.


The Gambia, the other novice

In 2019, Burundi, Mauritania and Madagascar discovered the event, with happiness for Madagascar which climbed for its first until the quarter-finals (eliminated by Tunisia 3-0). This year, alongside the Comoros, it is Gambia which also plays the novices. Like the Coelacanths, the Scorpions owe their qualification to the patient work of recruiting a workforce, of which 27 of the 28 players play abroad, entrusted since 2018 to Belgian technician Tom Saintfiet, a frequent traveler on the continent (passed through Namibia, Ethiopia, Malawi and Togo). Winner of the first match against Mauritania (1-0) this Wednesday, January 12, Gambia, 150and in the FIFA rankings, will have a lot to do to qualify against Mali (January 16) and Tunisia (January 20).



CAN 2022: figures of African football denounce the contempt of which the competition is said to be a victim

“It shows the lack of respect for Africa. ” This was Sébastien Haller’s answer to a question from a journalist for the Dutch daily. From Telegraaf asking him if he preferred to favor participation in the next African Cup of Nations (CAN) or stay with his club. “Would we have asked this question to a European player before the Euro?” Of course I’m going to CAN ”, added the star striker of Ajax Amsterdam and the Ivorian selection, a bit annoyed.

TO READ. In Cameroon, Jesuit priest calls for boycott of Africa Cup of Nations

At the origin of the controversy: the desire of European clubs not to release their African players selected by their national team to play the next CAN, organized in Cameroon from January 9 to February 6. “The African Football Confederation has not yet made public a suitable medical and operational protocol for the CAN tournament, in the absence of which the clubs will not be able to release their players for the tournament”, threatened on December 15 the European Association of Clubs (ECA), the organization responsible for defending the interests of teams from the Old Continent.

Eto’o and Drogba on the front line

These threats were ultimately not carried out. However, they did not fail to trigger the exasperation of African football players. If these pressures return on the occasion of each new CAN, the reaction has, this time, taken on an unprecedented scale. Great voices from the continent have strongly denounced the contempt they consider victim to competition in particular, like African football in general.

Samuel Eto’o, living legend of African football, did not hesitate to step up when the statements of the ECA cast doubt on a postponement or even cancellation of the competition. “Why shouldn’t the Africa Cup of Nations be played out? Give me only one valid reason!, rebelled the new president of the Cameroonian Football Federation on December 21. We are being treated as we have always been treated: we are less than nothing and we must always suffer.

Ten days later, it was the former Ivorian glory Didier Drogba who expressed his indignation on Twitter: “Respect must be mutual (…). There is still too much discrimination, inequalities with regard to our competitions and our players. ” A call also relayed by non-African personalities, such as Ian Wright, former Arsenal star striker. “Is there a tournament more despised than the African Cup of Nations”, wondered the Englishman, consultant for the BBC, who judges “Disrespectful” and “Tinged with racism” the attitude of journalists asking players if they would prefer to join their selection or stay with their club.

CAN in summer?

However, behind the contempt hides a much more down to earth issue: the calendar. Unlike other international competitions such as the Euro or the World Cup, the CAN is played in January, that is to say at the same time as the major European championships. Hence the pressure exerted by the clubs to retain their players at an important point in the season.

→ READ. CAN, mirror of the difficulties and promises of African football

Pressure that pushes some players to give up their summons to selection, even if their club does not strictly forbid them to go there. This was for example the case of Yacouba Nasser Djiga, Burkinabé defender of FC Basel whose refusal triggered the ire of his coach and his federation.

One solution could however satisfy everyone: organize the CAN in summer, when the clubs are no longer playing. The debate around the availability of players had also not taken in the summer of 2019, date of the last CAN. A return to the summer format is planned for 2023.