It was back in November 2007 that Djibouti secured their first ever FIFA World Cup™ qualifying win, a 1-0 defeat of Somalia in the preliminaries for South Africa 2010. That long-awaited victory took the tiny African nation, which covers an area of no more than 23,000 square kilometres, through to the group phase for the first time in its history, quite an achievement for a team made up of amateurs with full-time jobs and high school and university students.
Casting his mind back on that momentous occasion in an interview with FIFA.com, current Djibouti national team coach Noureddine Gharsalli said: “It’s hard to believe that a team made up mainly of students and workers could reach the pool phase of the World Cup qualifiers. Last June we had six players who couldn’t join the team in Tunisia for a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier because they were taking their school exams.”
Revealing what some of his players do for a living, Gharsalli said: “Some of them are with the presidential guard and others work in telecommunications and at the ports. The way the economy is here, the players have no choice but to look for work just so they can eat. It’s an amateur set-up here and that’s why we are where we are in the world ranking.”
Turning the corner
Djibouti are so accustomed to defeat and lie so low in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking that even the most optimistic of Djibouti fans find it hard to see where their next win is coming from. Contemplating the team’s plight, Gharsalli said: “We’re a team with no footballing history and no material resources. We don’t have any stars that can make the difference, but we do love the game, which fires our desire to achieve the impossible.”
An admirer of the German game, Gharsalli has subsequently made a huge effort to change that image by putting an effective strategy in place: “Our main objective is to put together a competitive team in the long term. That’s why we’re calling up young players for the senior team, some of whom are no more than 18.”
He added: “Nothing is impossible in football. A few years ago Cape Verde Islands were in a similar situation to us and they’re now one of the best teams on the continent. The players, coaches and the supporters all want to change that image of a team that always loses, and I’m convinced we’re going to make progress fast.
“Everyone helps us here in Djibouti. When we lose the supporters still come up to us with a big smile and congratulate us, and then there’s the official welcome too. The people here understand football. It’s not like other countries, where the coaching staff and players come in for criticism.”
Swaziland in their sights
Djibouti’s 864,000 inhabitants are hoping to see the team reprise that performance against Somalia eight years ago when they take on Swaziland in the first round of the African qualifying competition for Russia 2018.
The 60-year-old Gharsalli said his charges will be holding nothing back when the two sides meet: “My team have got nothing to lose and we’re going to put everything we have into trying to make the second round. We know it’s a tall order against a better-equipped team but there’s nothing that’s impossible in this sport.”
Rounding off, the Djibouti boss said: “Despite the obstacles we face in terms of resources and the climate, we’re determined to make the change. We want to write a new page in the history of African football and we want to change the football map in this continent, starting with the match against Swaziland. Whatever happens, Djibouti will make a name for themselves in the next ten years.”
Still lingering near the bottom of the World Ranking, Djibouti are impatiently waiting for the day when they will break into the top 200, a day they hope will come sooner rather than later.