The tiny Comoros Islands will reach another remarkable stage on their brief footballing journey when they debut at the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon on Monday.
The island archipelago is one of football’s youngest nations, having joined FIFA in 2005, but within two decades of that they will be competing at the continental championship in an unlikely fairytale.
They meet Gabon in their first Group C game in Yaounde on Monday, seeking to continue rattling the established order of the African game – but in a tough group in which they must also face former winners Ghana and Morocco.
The island nation, which declared independence from France in 1975, has a population of just under a million, but it has looked to its former colonial power for players to help create a competitive national team.
Fifteen years ago that trial games were first set up in Marseille, where there is a large Comorian expatriate community, looking to build the basis of a national team.
It was slow at first. They only entered their first World Cup qualifying campaign ahead of the 2010 finals, while it was only for the 2012 Cup of Nations finals that they first competed during qualification.
They have played a paltry 28 qualifiers over the last six editions, winning five games, drawing eight and losing 15. Not exactly a record to set the pulses racing, but in the 2021 qualifiers they won a first-ever competitive international away from home in Togo and held Egypt to a home draw to finish second in their group and book a place in Cameroon.
“Some of the early days were chaotic,” says coach Amir Abdou, who was a social worker in Agen in southern France and a part-time amateur coach when he first agreed to help the Comorians.
Seven years on, Abdou is lauded for his efforts, not only in identifying players with Comorian roots across France but also for being able to put them together into an efficient unit.
“The first team we put together was in just a matter of days,” remembers Abdou.
Some players are at top-flight clubs, like top scorer El Fardou Ben Mohamed at Red Star Belgrade in Serbia or Faiz Selemani at Kortrijk in Belgium.
But most play for lower league clubs in France and cannot be regarded as much more than journeymen footballers, making their achievement in securing a place at the finals in Cameroon even more remarkable.
“This qualification is the result of a lot of work over time. We are not here by chance,” insisted Abdou at Sundayâ€™s pre-match news conference.