Travelling 16 hours for international matches with Comoros: “But then I am received as a hero” – Sparta Rotterdam

09 June 2024 – 10:00

In the Indian Ocean, east of the African continent, lies a small island known as Comoros. The country had exactly 836,774 inhabitants in the last census in 2022. Including the family of Sparta defender Saïd Bakari. The right-back returns multiple times a year to the country where his roots lie. Partly to visit his family, but mainly to play international matches with Comoros, for which Bakari has already represented 32 times.

Approached by Comoros
Comoros: it would have been a country many Sparta supporters had never heard of until last year. However, Sparta brought in Saïd Bakari last year, a player who plays international matches for that country, even though Bakari was born near Paris. “La Courneuve in France is my birthplace, but all my family comes from Comoros. My parents at one point moved to France, which means my brothers, sisters, and I officially come from France. We are actually the only ones living in Europe now, because my grandpa and uncles and aunts still live there,” explains Bakari. The defender may not have been born in Comoros, but he was eligible to play for that country. “Comoros started playing football in 2005, but it became serious in 2010 when the country started scouting in France. Many footballers with roots in Comoros live here. It was always a dream for me to play for Comoros, but it surprised me that they were following me. I was playing at an amateur level at Belgian club Turnhout at the time when I first heard about the interest. I only joined the national team in 2017, two months after signing with RKC and playing professionally for the first time. From that moment on, I have always been called up.”

Before becoming an international for Comoros, Bakari had only been to the country for his football career. “Many people in Comoros live in poverty, but despite that, the people with the least are already happy. That’s why it’s always nice to come back to that country. Additionally, Comoros is a very beautiful country. It is an island, so there are many beautiful beaches. It is a warm country, both in terms of temperature and how the people are.” The warm reception Bakari receives also helps him make the journey every international break, as few internationals from the Netherlands travel as long as he does. “Do you have a moment?” jokes Bakari as he wants to explain his route. “I fly from Amsterdam to Ethiopia, which is about seven hours. Then I always have a three-hour layover and fly from Ethiopia to Tanzania. That flight takes four hours, and then I have an hour to get to the other plane, which flies from Tanzania to Comoros. That last flight is only one hour.” The right-back, if everything goes well, takes a total of sixteen hours to reach Comoros. “But then I am received as a hero. The extent to which football is so important there is underestimated. As I mentioned, people with little are happy, for example, when we play matches there. They wait for the national team at the airport. Especially if I have time to go to Paris after my last match at Sparta, to depart from there with my teammates. Most internationals play in France, so we often meet there to travel together. It is a long journey, and I am always tired when I arrive, but the people are so grateful that we go through this for our country, it is wonderful to be there.”

Football Experience in Comoros
How football is experienced in Comoros remains special for Bakari. “It is such a big celebration when we arrive there. So many people wait for our plane, because from Tanzania we always fly together to Comoros, if we haven’t seen each other earlier on the route. The country really waits for our arrival, after which a party erupts when we arrive, you wouldn’t believe it. The people sing and drum all the way from the airport to our hotel. Everyone walks with our team bus, which goes slowly through the island. It gives me goosebumps every time we are there.”

Not only the players’ arrival is celebrated, but the matches are also a football feast. “The stands shake throughout the match, everyone supports us when we play. There is currently space for about 10,000 people, as the stadium has recently been renovated. Football is experienced very differently there than in the Netherlands. Much more drums and trumpets, but also the people are really present very early. If we play at 2:00 pm, the stadium is already full at 10:00 am. The people are really crazy about football.”

Outside of international breaks, Bakari is never in Comoros, as he does not go there for his rest. “I can walk fairly normally on the street, but I am recognized. Especially in recent years, it has become much worse. When I am there for international breaks, I always like to visit my family in my free time, which I do on foot. Then there are quite a few people who want your autograph or ask for a photo. If at one point one person starts, the whole island comes to you. I don’t mind that and actually just enjoy it.” Bakari is known in Comoros, but Sparta is also becoming known. “My grandpa lives in Comoros and said that my matches are well followed. I also notice that from the messages I receive from many people in that country when I play with Sparta. After the match against AZ, my father sent a photo of the newspaper in Comoros. I was featured prominently there because they had written an article about the season progress. I am followed by many people from Comoros, which is nice.”

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Rising trend
Since 2006, Comoros has been playing official matches, starting as number 207 on the FIFA world ranking. The island has made a huge leap in football, as seen in the world ranking. Comoros is currently at its highest position ever: 117. “Everything is becoming more professional with us, also with the new stadium. Football has really been alive in the country in recent years, and as a result, more time is being invested. The association keeps looking for European players with roots from Comoros. Almost everyone who plays for our country is already in Europe. Mostly in the second tier of France but also in Denmark and Cyprus.” This is why the right-back is very satisfied with the level. “We are making bigger steps on the world ranking. We almost only play against countries in the top 100. By the end of the year, we want to be there too, and it is really possible. Our matches have so far only been against other African countries, but they no longer underestimate us. We have beaten several powerhouses from Africa, which shows that they are warned. We are slowly really making a name for ourselves in Africa,” says a passionate Bakari.

Africa Cup
One of Comoros’ biggest stunts was in 2022 when ‘Les Coelecantes’, as their nickname goes, participated in the Africa Cup for the first time. “This was my craziest adventure ever, and I am very proud of it. First of all, we qualified for the Africa Cup, something Comoros had never achieved. Of course, it was already a big celebration, but we had never expected to have such a successful African championship.”

Comoros made it through the group stage against all odds. “We were in a group with Gabon, Morocco, and Ghana. Not an easy draw. The first match was against Gabon and was actually a do-or-die match if we really wanted something in this tournament. Unfortunately, we lost 1-0, and a few days later, Morocco was also too strong for us, although that was no shame. It seemed like the tournament was over because we had to win against Ghana and depended on three other matches. Ghana was one of the favorites for the title, but surprisingly, we just won! That meant Ghana was directly eliminated, and we could still go through, although it was almost impossible. It turned out well for us, as the other three matches all ended in our favor. That evening was so exciting, especially that last match we depended on. I don’t remember who it was between, but one country had to lose and in the last minutes got a penalty. The goalkeeper saved that ball, so we advanced. There were so many emotions.” Ultimately, the round of 16 was the end station for Comoros. “It was in the middle of the Corona crisis, so we missed many players in the knockout phase. We ultimately only lost 2-1 to the home team Cameroon in a stadium of 80,000 people. It didn’t matter much to us anymore because we had such a great adventure. On the island, but also in Paris and Marseille, there was so much support for us.”

Crazy times upon return
The Africa Cup was played during the European competitions, so two years ago, Bakari returned directly from Cameroon to his then-employer RKC. When the international was back for international matches in Comoros a few months later, there was a lot waiting for him. “We were welcomed as heroes. Two friendly matches were scheduled specially so that we were all quickly back together in the next international break. It was a week-long celebration in Comoros, even though the Africa Cup wasn’t even won. The people were so proud. I can’t imagine what will happen if we actually win something.”

World Cup Qualification
In November, the 29-year-old defender started the qualification for the World Cup in 2026 to be held in the United States, Canada, and Mexico with Comoros. Only the group winner qualifies directly for the tournament. Comoros has started surprisingly well. “We started well with a win against the Central African Republic, although we should have been able to win that match on paper. Then we faced Ghana again. We had already beaten them in the Africa Cup. Therefore, another upset was expected. Ghana was not in good form, and it showed because we won again. Last time, the victory against Ghana was in Cameroon, but because we were playing at home now, you could feel much more of the joy. We made it 1-0, and I really thought the stadium wouldn’t survive that joy. Luckily, it went well. After that, we obviously celebrated exuberantly.” With a victory over the favorite in the qualification group, Comoros made such good progress that dreams of participating in the World Cup are openly discussed. “Not by me, though,” Bakari laughs. “We have only played two matches, and we still have to go to Ghana. In June, the next two matches are scheduled, and we just have to win again. We will be playing away, and in Africa, that is a big difference. After those matches, we will see, but we have started well at least.”

Beautiful Memories
The Africa Cup was Bakari’s most beautiful moment, but the right-back has experienced much more. “I have played against some very good footballers. If I may choose one, it is Mohamed Salah. In the qualification for the Africa Cup, we played against him, and he was my direct opponent. I often play as a left-back for Comoros. It was a learning experience,” Bakari says, who had his hands full with the Liverpool star player. “Salah is the big man in Egypt, I noticed that immediately, because a journalist from Egypt was looking for me, as I was his direct opponent. He was really good and scored twice, although I could have scored in that match too. During the match, I also spoke to Salah; he asked where I played and where I was born. He was really very kind and calm. Except when he had the ball because he scored twice!”