Djibouti is a country of extremes. Extreme poverty for many sits side-by-side with extreme wealth for the few. Its people have a lack of education, frequently suffer from high malnutrition, and there is high unemployment. On the other hand, it is a relatively stable country, certainly when compared to its neighbour Somalia, and attracts economic migrants from the surrounding countries.
It is also a country with a football mad populace. That comes as something of a surprise for a nation where success on the football field has been conspicuous by its absence. Its clubs make barely a ripple in continental competition, while the national team has only ever won one match since becoming FIFA members in 1994. A hotbed of football enthusiasm it may be, but a beacon of high performance it is not.
Djibouti played its first international match, under its then name of French Somaliland, in 1947 against their near neighbours from Ethiopia. In a sign of things to come, that first clash ended in a 5-0 defeat. Six months later: same venue, same opponent, same outcome, though they made a far better fist of it in a narrow 2-1 defeat. The same pattern continued in their sporadic fixtures, before giving up on the international game altogether in 1960. They wouldn’t play internationally again until 1983, by which time independence from France had been secured (in 1977) and the name changed to Djibouti.
Not much else had changed, however. Ethiopia were again the opposition for the great return to action. It ended in an 8-1 defeat for Djibouti.
This was all in the pre-FIFA days as far as Djibouti were concerned, but a welcoming to the FIFA family in 1994 didn’t bring about much of a change in fortune. The defeats, save for that lone win over Somalia in 2007, kept on coming. And yet the enthusiasm for the game remains as strong as ever.
There is a ten-team Premier League in Djibouti with the bulk of the teams playing the capital, Djibouti City, but its teams suffer in the same way as the national team when facing those from abroad. But they are taking a few baby-steps in the right direction. As a beneficiary of FIFA’s Goal programme, Djibouti have been able to build new training facilities, and add much needed expertise to improve fitness levels and medical care.
This helped to address one of the principal reasons for their enduring poor performance, which was the acute shortage of quality sports infrastructure. In part thanks to the FIFA coin, they now have a national stadium with artificial turf and capacity for 10,000 spectators.
But the country’s troubles have traditionally delved into matters far more serious than merely lack of football funds. Around 60% of the population of around 860,000 is unemployed. Those that are in work are generally very poorly paid, and yet the cost of living is relatively high. Poverty and malnutrition are the inevitable outcomes. Added to this is a history of tensions between Djibouti’s two principal ethnic groups, Issa and Afar, which resulted in a Civil War in the early 1990s.
Football could have become a mere triviality in amongst such seriousness, but the enthusiasm for the game has endured in spite of it all. Now they need some positive performances and results to build on that enthusiasm if they are to escape the clutches of the bottom of the rankings.