Although it is just ten years since they first affiliated with FIFA, Comoros have already achieved what some teams take decades to pull off. Through to the second round of African qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, the island nation are hoping now to continue their adventure.
"I still can't believe it," Comoros captain Ibrahim Rachidi told FIFA.com, his side* *having booked their progress with a 1-1 second-leg draw against Lesotho in the opening round. "We've taken Lesotho's place and achieved the improbable. We've become national heroes in a country that has a real need for a little joy. Reaching the second round of World Cup qualifying is the greatest thing I've achieved in my life so far."
The 35-year-old's euphoria is not difficult to understand. Comoros may have the greatest population density in Africa, but it is the continent's smallest country – and, more importantly, has only recently been exposed to international football. After joining FIFA in 2005, Comoros only got their first taste of World Cup qualifying ahead of South Africa 2010.
A dream come true
Perhaps the real breakthrough came in 2011, however. That was when the Comoran Football Federation (FCF) gathered together enough funds to employ an accomplished coach and call up overseas-based players with Comoran roots. The first to make the trip was Rachidi, who entered the fold at the age of 31.
"In August 2011, the federation got permission to select professionals," he recalled. "There were seven of us at the start and now there are 16. The national team has changed completely. We've gone from a side just trying to stay on its feet to an experienced team that can do great things. The federation didn't even have enough money to buy return flights for the players, but things have changed and all the problems have gone away."
Rachidi has changed too, with his involvement in the national team allowing him to delve into his own roots. "I'd never visited Comoros before," he said. "I come from a big family and my father hadn't been able to pay for us to travel because it cost more than €2,000. I had to wait until I was 31 to realise my childhood dream and meet my family.
"Being in the national side made it possible for me to visit the village where my father was born and say hello to my uncles and aunts, whom I'd heard so much about without ever meeting. Things like that had an impact on my performances as a player. Even though I'm 35, I'm still capable of giving something back to my country when asked."
Gunning for Ghana
For Rachidi, that commitment is common among his team-mates as well, and he believes it is what sets Comoros apart on the pitch. "All our players are warriors who give everything," he said. "We're national heroes for the people of Comoros. You can't imagine the reception we get at training sessions or matches. The love of the people has given us a huge amount of strength, and we're all prepared to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the team."
Les Coelecantes (Coelacanths) will certainly need to display those qualities if they hope to reach the group phase of World Cup qualifying. Drawn against Ghana, Rachidi and Co must somehow find a way past the third highest ranked side in Africa and the 30th on the global ladder.
Those figures matter little to Rachidi, but he is full of respect for the team blocking Comoros's path. "We're not afraid of Ghana because all the pressure is on their players," he said. "It wouldn't make sense for Ghana to miss out on the World Cup, or for them to be knocked out by Comoros. We've got nothing to lose because we've already made it through to the second round. We can beat Ghana because anything is possible in football."
As to how they might go about it, Comoros have a plan in store for their illustrious opponents. "We're going to play the same way we did against Lesotho," explained Rachidi. "We'll try to keep a clean sheet in the first leg and then anything will be possible in the return game, which is when we were able to make the difference against Lesotho. We're going to work like crazy to cause them problems – and if we manage that, we'll surely come out on top."
A challenge of the sternest kind clearly awaits, but Comoros are nothing if not ambitious. Already swimming in uncharted waters, Les Coelecantes refuse to be intimidated as they look to prolong their journey.