Comoros Islands and other minnows' chance to dream in AFCON qualifying
The Comoros Islands are among the smallest countries on the African continent -- well, off to the side of it, to be geographically correct -- and among the newest.
The tiny archipelago, which lies in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and has a population of around one million, has only been a fully fledged football-playing entity for just over a decade but on Thursday, made a giant leap into the group phase of the African Nations Cup qualifiers.
It is only some 50 days since the final of the 2017 edition in Libreville, Gabon, where Cameroon's Indomitable Lions ascended once again to the throne of the continental game by beating Egypt in the final, but already the 2019 qualifiers are underway.
The six lowest-ranked teams among the entrants have just completed a preliminary knockout round to fill three vacant spots in the group phase, which will get underway in June.
The Comoros, who became a FIFA member in 2005, overcame island neighbours Mauritius and are joined by Madagascar and South Sudan in the group competition while tiny Djibouti and Sao Tome e Principe must now wait for another cycle to play competitively again.
It is the regular diet of international matches that provide the propulsion that turns minnows like the Comoros into credible teams and provides the occasional fairytale, as witnessed by Guinea Bissau's remarkable qualification for the 2017 Nations Cup finals.
The Comoros have the same sort of pedigree. They have tapped with much success into the Diaspora, putting together a competent squad of players from the Comorian community in France, including several with top-flight experience. Comoros' squad for the two-legged tie against Mauritius included players from clubs like Ligue 1 contenders Nice and Marseille, and in Belgium, England, Greece and Turkey.
In the last World Cup qualifiers, the Comoros gave Ghana a torrid time on their artificial turf in Moroni. In extreme heat and humidity, they held the mighty Black Stars to a goalless draw. In the 2017 Nations Cup preliminaries, the Comoros won their first competitive match -- against Botswana at home -- and have become a really tough proposition.
Of course, there is still a long way to go and the cold statistics show much room for improvement. Over the last decade, the islanders have played 35 internationals, winning three, drawing 13 and losing 19. Their away record is 12 defeats from their last 16 trips. But progress to the group phase of the 2019 qualifiers will mean more matches, more experience and a chance to continue to grow their self-belief.
They will play in Group B with Cameroon, Malawi and Morocco. As Cameroon are the 2019 hosts and already qualified, their results in the group will not count so only the first placed finisher out of Morocco, Malawi and the Comoros advance to the finals. Morocco will be runaway favourites but there is a chance for the islanders to continue impressing.
South Sudan, where internal strife and the threat of famine portents tough times for the continent's newest nation, are also through after a 6-0 second leg win over Djibouti on Tuesday. South Sudan had lost 2-0 away in the first leg last week but bounced back emphatically. Their reward is a spot in the same group with Burundi, Gabon and Mali, who are currently suspended by FIFA and need to have their situation resolved before the first round of group matches on the weekend of June 10-12 or face being disqualified.
Veteran James Moga Joseph, who used to play for Sudan before the South broke away, led the way with two goals.
Madagascar also advanced through the preliminary round on Sunday after winning home and away against Sao Tome, although the 4-2 aggregate scoreline points to how Sao Tome have improved. Madagascar are now in a group with Equatorial Guinea, Senegal and Sudan.
The 2019 qualifiers will see 12 groups of four teams with the winners going to the 2019 finals plus the three best runners-up joining Cameroon at the finals.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.