Comoros players have not woken up from their dream run at the Africa Cup of Nations despite their last-16 exit, says defender Alexis Souahy.
The first-time qualifiers from the Indian Ocean nation of under one million inhabitants created a sensation by eliminating Ghana in the group stage, before narrowly losing 2-1 to hosts Cameroon in the second round.
The underdogs, ranked 82 places below the Indomitable Lions at 132nd in the world, gave the hosts a tough match, despite not having a recognised goalkeeper because of Covid-19 and injury and being reduced to 10 men after just seven minutes.
“We haven’t woken up just yet from this amazing dream in Cameroon. I think by the time we get home that’s when we will realise how big an impact our performance has made in our lives,” Souahy told BBC Sport Africa.
“It was a mixed feeling because we saw the passionate support from around the globe for Comoros. They were all behind us, they could see we are good people, we played with our hearts.
“We played beautiful football and everyone felt inspired about the way we played and that’s the goal of this tournament.
“It shows the passion and the never-say-die spirit of a team many never gave a chance. Despite the lows of the last game against Cameroon, we are very proud of our journey here.”
Comoros had left-back Chaker Alhadhur in goal against Cameroon, but the stand-in keeper produced a brilliant performance and made several saves in Yaounde on Monday.
Salim Ben Boina, who was man of the match in their 2-0 loss to Morocco, was injured in the win over Ghana, while understudy Ali Ahamada and third-choice keeper Moyadh Ousseini were both ruled out after testing positive for Covid-19.
Having beaten the Black Stars last week – an upset which sparked celebrations among the squad and back in Comoros’ capital Moroni – the narrow loss to another continental heavyweight Cameroon has not dampened their spirit.
Souahy, who plays for United States second-tier side New Mexico United added: “We can take a lot of positives because we learned a lot.
“It was our first time in such a big tournament.
“We had in the past managed to build a strong unit in the squad, but in Cameroon we developed a strong bond and now we all know more about each other.”
‘We’ve earned respect from world’
With a squad boosted by members of the country’s diaspora, the Coelacanthes saw off Kenya and Togo to reach this year’s tournament, and are five spots shy of their best-ever ranking achieved in October 2017.
“It was a full party for the squad [to beat Ghana], it was exciting and just the fact of winning one game in the group stage was massive,” Souahy, 27, said.
“Qualifying for the next round was unbelievable, we prayed and hoped for results to go our way in the last minute to make it to the next stage. It was an amazing moment for us, for the country, for the people around the world who support Comoros.
“Comoros is a beautiful island with lovely people. We played our hearts out and gave everything in this tournament and showed to the world that Comoros is on the map.
“People didn’t know much about us before we got here but now the world knows how strong we are and we’ve earned respect.
“We have come to the realisation that in our strength we can stand up to any team. Despite our numerical disadvantage and health challenges [Covid] we’ve proven that people will definitely face us with respect.”
Coelacanthes proud after exit
Another player who says the team are going home with a sense of pride and feels that they could have gone even further is Cyprus-based midfielder Faoud Bachirou, who played all four games in Cameroon.
“We are proud of what we’ve done, what we’ve tried to show – we’ve played with heart and we’ve played for our country,” he said.
“Our keeper (Alhadhur) tried his best but that’s not his position but it is something we have been working on – of course if we had our goalkeeper that would have added a bit more strength.”
The Comoros team bus was stuck in traffic on the way to the Olembe Stadium ahead of the Cameroon game and Bachirou feels more could have been done to avoid such incidents.
“I don’t think we are looked after like other teams were looked after,” he said.
“We were stuck in traffic. I don’t know what happened. There have been a lot of things during the competition that were really questionable.”
Souahy retains Nations Cup ambitions
A late inclusion to the Comoros squad for the continental showpiece event, a Covid infection meant that Souahy was forced to watch the action form his hotel room and the stands.
At 27, he still has the ambition of playing in another Cup of Nations as the next tournament is scheduled for the summer of 2023 in Ivory Coast.
“This is the type of tournament you dream your entire life of playing as a child,” he added.
“There are not so many competitions, of course there is the World Cup and the Euros, then it’s the Afcon next to them.
“This is the type of tournament you dream of as a kid and you watch on television and hope to be in someday. So I would love to come back here again and help my country to another major tournament.”