After earning a 'dream' qualification, the tiny island nation of Comoros is ready to take on a continent at the Africa Cup of Nations

Comoros will make its AFCON debut in this year's tournament.

(CNN)Away from questions about whether the upcoming African Cup of Nations (AFCON) would take place amid the pandemic, the tiny archipelago nation of Comoros has been preparing for its debut on the continent's biggest stage.

The achievement of qualifying for Africa's biennial football tournament is difficult to overstate given the size and footballing history of Comoros.
Located just off the east coast of Africa, it is the continent's fourth-smallest country with a population of less than 900,000. Nicknamed Les Coelacanthes (the Coelacanths) -- that moniker coming from a rare species of tropical fish which inhabits the native waters of the Indian Ocean -- the team was only admitted as a member of FIFA, football's global governing body, in 2005.
    The dream of reaching the AFCON finals became a reality in March 2021 after a typically hard-fought 0-0 draw against Togo, but the story of Comoros' unlikely success can be traced back to 2014 when head coach Amir Abdou took over with a new vision for the team.
      In light of Comoros' limited footballing infrastructure, Abdou chose to lean on the nation's diaspora, particularly in France, to find the best set of players possible. Speaking to CNN Sport, Abdou admitted that this was no easy process as many of the players, having been born and brought up in Europe, were uncertain about the prospect of competing for Comoros.
        "When you are a small country proposing a project to these players, it's very difficult to get them to say I want to come to Comoros when we don't know what we can offer in terms of safety," he said.
        Abdou looks on during the qualifying match between Morocco and Comoros in October 2018 ahead of the 2019 AFCON.
        Abdou took a frank approach to the persuasion process and met with the players in question to build meaningful relationships with them: "We had a conversation with all our national players which was very important to convince them and build a mutual trust between us."

          The beginning of the journey

          One of the players convinced by Abdou's project is Fouad Bachirou, Comoros' 31-year-old midfielder who currently plays for FC Omonia in Cyprus. Bachirou first joined up with the team in 2014 and credits the manager with creating a competitive environment that was attractive to himself and his teammates alike.
          "2014 was when everything changed -- when Amir came into place and decided to look all around the world for players," he told CNN, "and to try to put more organization around the whole national team, the whole federation. That made a big impact for most of the players when they came around."
          Abdou is keen to deflect that praise back on to his players, who he refers to as "true patriots because the love that they have for their country goes beyond football."
          That patriotic sentiment is affirmed by a number of the players' emotions when they look back at the otherwise innocuous stalemate with Togo in March 2021. Bachirou regards it as "the best moment of his career in football," while his teammate and compatriot Said Bakari, who plays for RC Waalwijk in the Dutch Eredivisie, referred to the end of the match as a "really beautiful moment."
          Bakari runs with the ball during the match between RKC Waalwijk and PSV on December 19.
          Abdou and his players are not the only ones who reveled in the team's qualification success. The team has long had a strong following on the islands, and the upturn in fortunes in recent years has turned that sentiment into full-fledged fanaticism.
          "When the team arrives in Comoros [for matches]," said Abdou, "the country stops 15 days before. The country stops, and the people live through the team.
          "There is a joy, not just a joy but an explosion -- as if we have won the World Cup or the Champions League. It's amazing. It's completely mad and difficult to describe."