Djibouti: playing football while Djiboutians suffer

The small country’s regime is accused of using sport to gain favor with its young population instead of investing significantly in the upliftment of the nation.

Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa with one of the continent’s smallest populations with just over a million inhabitants, has always been one of the lowest-ranked teams in the body. world leader of Fifa. They are currently seated at 182 out of 210 teams.

Their weaknesses were once again exposed against Algeria in their first match of the 2022 World Cup qualifying group stages which was played on September 2 in Blida, Algeria. It took only five minutes for Algeria to score the first of their eight painful goals. Riyad Mahrez and Ismaël Bennacer played a short corner before Mahrez scored a lifted cross that striker Islam Slimani nudged – his first of four that night.

Djibouti had only passed the preliminary stage of qualifying for the World Cup once, in 2010, when they finished bottom of their group, scoring two goals and conceding 30. The East Africans hoped to at least improve this. performance, but they still succeeded. underperform.

“I said before the game that Algeria had to play badly and that we had to be excellent to maybe have a chance,” said Julien Mette, the elegant young French coach of Djibouti at the press conference of Djibouti. ‘post-game. “In the end, we played poorly and they were great.”

Internally and informally, several members of the staff of the Djibouti delegation were not satisfied with the conditions of their trip to Algeria. Souleiman Waberi, the president of the Djiboutian federation, vice-president of the African Football Confederation (CAF) and strong ally of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, was unable to make the trip to North Africa. He was still in Russia for the 2021 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, reflecting the defeatist attitude of some surrounding the Djibouti camp.

“When I hear that some people around the players were talking about withdrawing from this game … these are mentalities that must be changed,” said Mette at the Mustapha Tchaker stadium in Blida.

Premature optimism

His tone juxtaposed the surge of optimism that had formed atop the national team ahead of the qualifying matches. In addition to Waberi’s role in CAF, fresh money was pumped into a few local clubs and, under Mette, the Sharks of the Red Sea were a young team playing attractive possession-based football.

Captain Daoud Wais, 34, a small bald center-back and ball player, was the oldest of the squad, the only player over 30. “For some time now, Djiboutian football has progressed,” he said timidly in a hotel conference room the match.

Wais, who is under contract with Arta Solar 7, the Djiboutian champions, illustrated his point by pointing the finger at the high-level players who came to exercise their profession in Djibouti. “In my Arta Solar 7 club, we signed [Cameroonian veterans] Alex Song and Carlos Kameni … so we can say we’ve seen some progress. “

Yet any superficial varnish of progress has been completely cracked. After the bludgeoning in Algeria, Djibouti went to Morocco for its second match of the month, against Niger, CAF not having deemed any stadium in Djibouti suitable for hosting international matches. This time they lost 2-4.

The football players of the former French colony preferred to throw their investments in favorite projects, rather than in basic infrastructure.

presidential influencer

Alongside Waberi, the current strongman of Djibouti football is Tommy Tayoro, a Franco-Ivorian businessman who also happens to be the son-in-law of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. Rumors say Tayoro met the president’s daughter at a Parisian nightclub where he worked as a bouncer.

After being married to the presidential family, Tayoro found the capital to open a solar panel company named Solar 7 and a private jet company called Ivory Jet Services. It was with Solar 7 that he decided to buy the club of Arta, which made African football aficionados dream after signing in November 2020 the former Cameroonian international Alex Song.

Song’s arrival in Djibouti, however, seemed far too forced from the start. A convoy of black SUVs and luxury sedans awaited the former Arsenal midfielder at the airport. Schoolchildren flanked the dirt sidewalks. Looks like they’ve been taken out of the classroom just to welcome the top footballer.

Song would later justify his bizarre career change by talking about the motivation these same kids gave him after signing with Arta Solar 7, a club that only recently received a large cash injection.

In a small room filled with journalists, the charismatic Song said: “I remember when I was younger and the Cameroonian national team was passing on a team bus and I was running after them. Now I see them. same kids running after me and I think … it was me a short time ago. That’s what I wanted to bring to Djibouti. That’s why I’m here.

Tayoro then stepped in and almost threateningly questioned the room filled with reporters: “Who else on the continent did that? Alex has played at the biggest clubs in the world, from Barcelona to Arsenal to West Ham, and we were all proud to watch him on TV And we never thought he would ever play for Arta Solar 7 or any other African club. “

Mixed results

Despite signing the marquee, Tayoro’s experience with Arta can only be considered half-successful so far.

While it is true that Arta Solar 7 won the 2020-2021 Djiboutian Premier League for the first time in club history, he was also prematurely eliminated from the preliminary round of the 2020 CAF Confederation Cup.

Song scored the only goal of the first leg against Egyptians Arab Contractors, or Al Mokawloon Al Arab, but he was scored in his own net. Arta was spanked 9-1 in the second leg for an aggregate score of 10-1.

After the season, Cameroonians Dany Nounkeu and Carlos Kameni joined Song, as did Senegalese shooter Diafra Sakho. The club spent a few pre-season weeks touring Cameroon and has great ambitions for the coming season, especially in CAF competitions.

Yet like the national team and the country as a whole, the Arta Solar 7 project shines on the surface but rests on shoddy foundations of neglect and corruption.

Since 1999, Djibouti has been ruled by Guelleh, 73, a former intelligence officer who was the nephew of the country’s first president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Guelleh reigns over the enclave with an iron fist. Those who oppose him and his party are quickly forced into exile.

Indeed, after the match against Algeria, three Djiboutian internationals defected from the national team in the transit zone of Orly airport in Paris. The two substitute goalkeepers and a midfielder have sought political asylum from the French authorities, in a shocking move that managed to escape the headlines at home.

Clever machinations

The footballers will join a dynamic Djiboutian diaspora which has turned into an active force, opposed to the regime. One of them is Abdirahman M Ahmed, a human rights activist now based in neighboring Somalia after claiming to have received credible death threats. He paints a disturbing portrait of the current president.

“When Guelleh came to power, Djibouti was in a precarious situation,” said Abdirahman. “The French army, which never left after colonization, did not want him, but he quickly made peace with various armed rebellions and united the factions fighting for power.

“After September 11, he quickly seized the opportunity to meet with the Americans. In fact, he was the first foreign president to visit Washington DC after the attacks. He struck a deal on September 20, 2001.”

Suddenly Guelleh faced the Americans against the French. The United States quickly built Camp Lemonnier, which has been described by The Economist as “the most important base for drone operations outside the war zone of Afghanistan”. While the United States has up to 32 operational military outposts and 7,000 military personnel deployed in rotation across the continent, Lemonnier is officially the only permanent US military base in Africa.

“Guelleh may be a dictator,” Abdirahman said, “but he’s very smart. He plays the great powers against each other.”

After Camp Lemonnier, Guelleh leased land from China, Germany, Spain and Japan. There are now a total of seven foreign military bases in the small 23,000 km² country – the third smallest in mainland Africa but strategically located on the Horn of Africa, near the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden.

favorite dictator

Guelleh quickly found ways to sell megaprojects in his country. From gigantic rail infrastructure and submarine telecommunications cables to the sprawling shipping ports that service the world’s naval freight fleets, the world’s superpowers continue to find ways to win the favor of their favorite dictator. Yet opponents of the regime point out that a fifth of the population is forced to live on less than $ 2 a day.

“We’ve been hearing that we’ve been the ‘New Dubai’ or the ‘Singapore of Africa’ for a decade and a half now, but most plans never materialize,” Abdirahman said. “When they do, the wealth is concentrated around the presidential circle.”

As for the Djiboutian national team or Arta Solar 7, a significant part of the population with its median age of 23.9 years sees such projects as a way to flatter the youth.

“Djibouti is a young country. My opinion is that those in power understand that if they want continued support, they have to invest. Instead of developing a basic national strategy or sports policy, they have started to focus on national teams to instrumentalize sport in order to attract young people for political purposes, ”Abdirahman said.

Such a strategy would explain the recent investments in football in Djibouti, but if the results continue to be as bad as they have been, it could well have the opposite effect.

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