Jay-Jay Okocha watches on as football fans return in Chad after four years

“The fans came back to the stadiums for the first time in nearly four years,” says Naïr Abakar, the vice-president of the Chadian Football Association (FTFA) with immense pride. “It means so much to people here.”

The landlocked country in central Africa dominated by the vast Sahara desert in its north has never qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations and is hardly renowned for its footballing pedigree. That could be about to change, however, thanks in part to the efforts of Abakar – a 31-year-old who was born in Paris to Chadian parents before moving to their homeland six years ago “to help my country and give it some new spirit”.

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After three seasons of inactivity, Chad’s domestic league crowned new champions last week when the army side AS PSI emerged victorious in a thrilling playoff final against Elect Sport thanks to a last-minute own goal. The former Bolton midfielders Jay-Jay Okocha and Khalilou Fadiga were guests of honour as 15,000 supporters packed the Diguel stadium in the capital, N’Djamena, and Abakar hopes their presence can inspire the next generation of players in the country.

“It was a celebration of football,” he says. “Before the game, players from the youth academy were given the chance to speak to them both and take photos. Jay-Jay also gave the young players a little exhibition of his skills; that was fantastic. Football is hope for children and now with the new competition we can provide that for the country.”

Qualifying for Afcon for the first time is our target now

Qualifying for Afcon for the first time is our target now – we want to bring a new generation throughThe Chad Premier League, first contested in 1988, carried on for most of the civil war that lasted from 2005 until 2010 but has often been beset with financial issues. The competition stopped after Gazelle FC’s triumph in 2020 and the FTFA was suspended by Fifa because of government interference in 2021, having been disqualified from the Africa Cup of Nations by the Confederation of African Football.

“The last executive was elected 15 years ago and during this period our football was really down,” Akabar says. “We did not qualify for any intercontinental competitions and it was very hard. There was a dispute between the ministry of sport and the president of the football federation and football just stopped. Without competition it was very difficult for the players – a lot of them left to play in Cameroon or Ivory Coast.”

But under the leadership of Jacqueline Moudeina – a human rights lawyer known for helping to bring the former Chad president Hissène Habré to justice for crimes against humanity who was appointed as president of the normalisation committee set up by Fifa in 2021 – there is renewed hope.

“When I came last year, the clubs didn’t want to play in the championship,” Akabar adds. “In Africa, it’s difficult for owners to finance everything and they often end up paying for everything from their own pockets. The clubs were tired of playing without sponsorship or support. So we called in all the actors – the presidents of the clubs and of the league, the players, the coaches – to find a solution. We gave them financial support and eventually we were able to launch the new league. The football family is together again.”

Akabar is responsible for football development in Chad and has big plans to build on the success of the relaunched league. He pays for 15 players from some of Chad’s poorest regions to attend Samuel Eto’o’s academy in Cameroon every year and accepts it will take time to build an effective youth programme in the existing structure.

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“None of our clubs are professional at the moment so our plan is to raise the level of the league so we can support a professional system,” he says. “With a good championship, we can have a strong national team. Qualifying for Afcon for the first time is our target now – we want to bring a new generation through. I want to give this new image to our youth. Yes, we have problems and a lot of difficulties in Chad but we can fight and we can change the world maybe …”

With war raging in neighbouring Sudan, estimates predict that up to one million refugees could cross the border into Chad in the coming months. Akafor is sure they will be welcomed and that some may help play their part in the country’s football revolution.

“It’s important for Chad to help them and to give them support,” he says. “Peace is our deep priority in Chad. To the north we have Libya and the Central African Republic to the south, so our country is in the middle of a region with a lot of problems. We want to stay strong to make sure we can maintain peace in our country and football can really make a difference.”

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