Comoros' Said Bakari in action for Dutch side RKC Waalwijk
Comoros international Said Bakari in action for Dutch side RKC Waalwijk

At the final whistle, Said Bakari’s first emotion was disappointment.

The RKC Waalwijk winger and his Comoros team mates had, they felt, missed a fabulous chance to beat African football giants Egypt.

Bakari himself had seen a goal-bound shot tipped round the post and the game in Moroni had ended 0-0 in November 2019.

But the crowd weren’t disappointed. The crowd were elated. And gradually the magnitude of their achievement began to sink in to the players.

“We were a little bit disappointed after the game,” the 26-year-old admits.

“But then we realised we had made something crazy – no-one expected that result.”

This was Egypt – 7-time winners of the Africa Cup of Nations. A team featuring top stars like Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ and Ahmed Hegazy. And Comoros had held them to a well-earned draw.

That was when the team and those around them really began to believe they could do something they had never before achieved, and make it to the Nations Cup themselves.

One win from their remaining two games will guarantee qualification for Cameroon 2021. First they host the already-eliminated Togo before travelling to face Egypt again.

Even if they were to slip up, the only way Kenya can overhaul them is by winning both of their games against the same opposition.

So the odds are that the Coelacanths will do in 2021 what their neighbours Madagascar did in 2019, and make a debut appearance at the continental finals.

“For me it’s magical – magical,” Bakari says.

“The players, the staff, we have confidence. It’s the moment for us to make the dream true.”

Paris, Waalwijk, Moroni

Comoros international Said Bakari at RKC Waalwijk's stadium
Comoros international Said Bakari at RKC Waalwijk’s stadium

Bakari’s journey to the international stage – like that of many of his team mates – is a long and tortuous one.

He was born to Comoran parents in the suburbs of Paris and played in the youth set-ups of Paris Saint Germain, before the Qatari billions arrived in the French capital.

But to make it as a pro he had to go on the road.

“I left home when I was 18, so since that moment I thought I have to do everything to become a pro,” Bakari told BBC Sport Africa.

“In football we know you have up and downs so you have to be mentally strong and reach your goal.

“That stayed in my head, and in all the clubs I played that was my goal, my ambition to play and be professional.”

He needed that mental resilience in the coming years, as he plied his trade in the amateur leagues in Belgium and France – training and staying fit in breaks from his jobs with a delivery company and as a caretaker at a school.

At one point there was the promise of a move to Morocco – but that fell through and he found himself without a club at all.

“Yes, it was hard,” Bakari told me.

“But I think everyone has his story and this is my story; this kind of football and this side of football made me better as a man and as a footballer.

“I think I enjoy football more now than other players because I saw the real life. I’m lucky to be here.”

“Here” is the well-appointed lounge at Dutch top-flight club RKC Waalwijk, where Bakari is an increasingly important part of the set-up.

He was back in Belgium, again playing the amateur game, when in 2017 he came to the attention of the Brabanders – then in the Netherlands’ second-tier. His chance in the pro game had finally come.

“It’s the best club to make this step,” he says.

“When I came, we were in the second division, so I got promoted with the club, and I’ve seen how we’ve changed professionally and mentally.

“I’m grateful to be here, I’m thankful because it’s a very good club for me.

“Because it’s a chance, maybe a second or third chance for me, and I just try to enjoy because we never know what’s going to be tomorrow. I just try to enjoy the moment.”

Cameroon beckons?

Comoros football fans
Comoros football fans will be hoping to see their heroes at the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon

As his club career finally blossomed, Bakari was also thinking about the biggest stage of all – the international game.

As a youngster he had dreamed of playing for France. That chance was gone. But in the Indian Ocean, Comoros – the country of his parents’ birth, and for so long the minnows of African football – were beginning to move up in the world.

Coach Amir Abdou had already been in place for several years, taking the Coelacanths closer and closer to a big breakthrough.

“I saw that the team of my country, they achieved something, they grew up, so I had the feeling that I have to play for them – I have to make my family proud,” Bakari says.

In 2017, the same year he moved to Waalwijk, he got his first chance for Comoros.

Coach Abdou insists on a professional outlook and mental strength, according to Bakari – and the formula is working.

They came within a whisker of qualifying for the 2019 Nations Cup, and with two games to go are favourites to make it to Cameroon in 2022.

After an opening win against Togo and that fine showing against Egypt in Moroni, Comoros went into back-to-back games against Kenya.

They drew in Nairobi and four days later produced an outstanding victory at home, to put themselves in pole position.

If the crowd’s reaction to the draw with Egypt had been ecstatic, this was something else again.

“It was like we’d won the World Cup – it was a big party,” Bakari says.

“Because of [the pandemic] we stayed on the bus, but we saw, we were close, we saw how the feeling was, how everyone was crazy. I swear I will never forget that kind of moment.”

Those scenes and feelings would surely pale into insignificance if Bakari and his team mates clinch that place in Cameroon.

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