‘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.’
Achieving the impossible is what Noureddine Gharsalli, the 60-year-old coach of the Djibouti national team, and his charges attempt every time they take the field. As one of Africa’s smallest nations with a population of 860,000, they are always up against it as their results over the years bear out.
The national team is made up of amateurs, mostly with full-time jobs, others are studying at university while a handful are still in high school. ‘Last June we had six players who couldn’t join the team in Tunisia for a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier,’ added Gharsalli. ‘Because they were taking their high school exams.’ Such is life in the lower echelons of the world’s game.
‘Some of them are in the presidential guard,’ he added. ‘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.’
When Gharsalli voiced this lament, his team sat one perilous place above the bottom of the world rankings, but with the passing of a few more months that is no longer the case. But the largely youthful squad belies the efforts Gharsalli and his coaches are making in looking to the future. They are thinking long-term, investing in the development of their young players with the aim of bringing through a generation with the experience and know-how to raise Djibouti’s fortunes, even if only a little.
‘Our main objective is to put together a competitive team in the long term,’ he stated. ‘That’s why we’re calling up young players for the senior team, some of whom are no more than 18.’ But surely even if these players do develop well, the chances of success will still be hampered by their lack of numbers and lack of resources?
‘Nothing is impossible in football,’ Gharsalli counters. ‘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 supporters all want to change that image of a team that always loses, and I’m convinced we’re going to make progress fast.’
However, they have had to take that final step down to the bottom of the rankings before any upward progress can be made. The upcoming CECAFA Cup followed by two matches with Liberia next spring may provide an early indicator of whether Gharsalli’s methods are working or not. But there is a groundswell of positive support in the football-mad country. There is a perception that everyone is pulling in the same direction, trying to alter the country’s footballing fortunes for the better.
‘Everyone helps us here in Djibouti. When we lose, the supporters still come up to us with a big smile and congratulate us. The people here understand football. It’s not like other countries, where the coaching staff and players come in for criticism.’
‘Despite the obstacles we face in terms of resources and the climate, we’re determined to make the change,’ he added. ‘We want to write a new page in the history of African football and we want to change the football map in this continent. Whatever happens, Djibouti will make a name for themselves in the next ten years.’
Fine words from a man with a vision. If Djibouti are to make a name for themselves, other than their current name as the worst in the world, they have a hard road ahead of them.