- Djibouti face Lebanon in Arab Cup qualifier
- Mahdi Mahabeh their most effective weapon
- 25-year-old is country’s all-time top scorer
For many years, Djibouti had to endure the troubled waters of world football. Apart from a brief respite in 2006/07, the Shoremen of the Red Sea were never far from the bottom of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking… until 2016 that is. That was the year Mahdi Mahabeh debuted with the national team, and Djibouti have been slowly making up ground ever since.
“There are many reasons for our current success,” Mahdi Mahabeh says at the start of his interview with FIFA.com, “but first and foremost was a genuine desire to reinvigorate our country’s football. Our federation mobilised the financial, logistical, technical and human resources that the national team needed to flourish. It’s in this context that our coach Julien Mette came on board, and he has obviously been key to our progress.”
The team’s recent results back this up, especially progressing beyond the first round of qualifying for a FIFA World Cup™ for only the second time in their history at the expense of Eswatini, who they beat 2-1 in the home leg and held scoreless on the road. After six consecutive losses away from home in World Cup preliminaries, it was the first time Djibouti had avoided defeat on their travels.
Mette brings new broom
Those assured performances and others, including a draw with Gambia in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and victory over Burundi in the 2019 CECAFA Cup, have allowed Djibouti to climb back to 183rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. It is a position the team last occupied 14 years ago after their temporary upturn in fortunes during the 2006/07 season.
“Julien Mette’s contribution has been decisive. He’s brought a new lease of life to the team, new working methods and a new system of play that prioritises keeping possession. I think his methods are different from many of his counterparts in Africa and that they can bring encouraging results in the medium and long term,” predicts Mahabeh.
Goals scored and history made
Mahabeh’s contribution to these improved results should not be underestimated, even if the player himself is reluctant to blow his own trumpet.
In less than five years, the 25-year-old striker, who still plays his club football locally in the colours of Ali-Sabeh Djibouti Telecom, has already earned legendary status by becoming his country’s top scorer with six goals in 14 games. “Me, an idol?! I don’t know… but it seems that the public in general and the supporters in particular rely heavily on me when I’m playing,” he admits.
It cannot be denied that the player likes to score goals… and make history. Instrumental in both goals – including a penalty he won and converted himself – in their first-leg victory over Eswatini in the opening round of Qatar 2022 qualifying, Mahabeh also netted both goals against Burundi (2-1) in their 2019 CECAFA Cup clash. The latter was another first, marking the team’s maiden win outside Djibouti.
“Those memories, which are the best of my career, will stay with me forever. Against Eswatini, it was all the more beautiful because the stadium was full to the rafters,” he recalls, before returning to his victorious penalty: “I must admit I felt great anxiety before taking it, but once the net bulged, all that evaporated. The explosion of joy from the fans overrode everything in an instant!”
Which is not to say, of course, that expectations are any lower now: “The pressure is always there. I cannot deny that. I have a huge responsibility to my team-mates and the fans. The only way I know to deal with that is to give the very best of myself,” he adds.
Lebanon blocking road to Qatar
Djibouti will require another selfless and inspired performance from Mahabeh and his team-mates in their 22 June showdown with Lebanon for a place at the FIFA Arab Cup 2021™. The Cedars are 90 places above them in the Ranking and will not be lacking in confidence, having just secured their place in the third and final round of Asian qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
However, Mahabeh signed off on a positive note, saying: “I’m calm and convinced that, if we manage to qualify, we’re capable of winning some games in Qatar. The main thing is to beat Lebanon and take part in this competition. That would provide something we lack a bit as a team: experience.”