It didn’t take long before memes with ’does your car run on gas or solar?’ flooded Egyptian social media on Saturday afternoon, following the final whistle at the Azam Complex in Dar Es Salaam, as elated Al Ahly fans looked to poke fun at their arch-rivals following their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Djibouti side Arta/Solar7 in the second round of the 2023/24 CAF Confederation Cup. A remarkable result by all means, and certainly one of the biggest giant killings in the history of African football. However, to a lot of Egyptian fans the entire scene was something akin to an otherworldly dream (or nightmare, for that matter). 

It’s not just because Arta/Solar7 won by two goals to nil, or the comedic manner in which both goals were scored, but rather because a lot of things looked out of place. First of all, the game was being held in Tanzania despite it being contested between a team from Djibouti and another from Egypt, secondly the team from Djibouti – to a lot of Egyptian fans – sounded equally as comical as the goals conceded since solar is actually the colloquial term for diesel fuel in Egypt, and thirdly in the midst of the celebrations stood Burkina Faso star Alain Traore, brother to Aston Villa’s Bertrand, and a certain Salomon Kalou, who came on as a second half substitute. So, immediately the focus shifted to Arta/Solar7. Who are they? And, why do they have two AFCON medalists on the pitch?

For those close to African football, then Saturday afternoon’s upset wasn’t the first time the Djibouti based outfit captured headlines. Three years ago, they signed former Arsenal and Barcelona star Alex Song, who was not only tasked with captaining the side on the pitch, but played a role in developing the youngsters at the Arta-based outfit as well. More household names followed. Kalou was unveiled at the Kempinski Djibouti Palace in 2021, Carlos Kameni came out of retirement to join his ex-teammate Song in April of that same year, alongside ex-West Ham striker Diafra Sakho, who had spent one year without a club following his short stint with Neuchatel Xamax.

What was very intriguing about these signings, though, wasn’t their return to playing in African football after long careers in Europe, but rather how they did so via Arta/Solar7. Dijbouti does not possess a storied relationship with football, nor is it one of the continent’s wealthiest. There are only seven countries in Africa with a land area less than Djibouti, 23% of the country lives in extreme poverty according to the World Bank, the entire Djibouti Premier League is played in the same stadium, and the country’s national team has zero major appearances in international competitions, apart from the East African CECAFA Cup where they’ve never progressed past the group stage. 

As football is, or has been for quite a while, the answer behind the sudden influx in stars is a man who was duly sat next to Salomon Kalou while presenting him as a new star in Djibouti football: Solar7 (and in turn club) owner Tommy Tayoro Nyckoss, a Franco-Ivorian businessman, or serial-entrepreneur as he calls himself, born in 1978, whose aim, stated verbatim on his website, is to ‘provide Djibouti with high-end services’. 

That part does add up when you look at his list of businesses. In 2012, he opened Ivory Jet Services, the East African country’s first private airline, six years later he complemented it with Delic Air, an airline catering company. In the same year he founded Delic Air, he started energy company Solar7, which in turn sponsored the Arta-based club (founded in 1980 as AS Compagnie Djiboutie-Ethiopie), a matter made easier by the decision to grant tax breaks to companies who sponsor football teams.

However, what doesn’t add up is how a Franco-Ivorian businessman ended up founding four major ventures in Djibouti. That is because, on his website, Nyckoss omitted one huge detail from his entrepreneurial career, and that is that he settled in Djibouti in the first place because he married Fatouma-Awo Ismail Omar, daughter of president Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has served as head of the Djibouti state since 1999, succeeding his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon. 

The changes Nyckoss has imposed since his company sponsored Arta have been mind-boggling. Of course, signing the likes of Kalou, Song, Kameni, Sakho, and Traore rightfully captured the most headlines. However, a sizable portion of Arta’s squad possess decent resumes, which has not only seen them cause one of the biggest upsets in African football of late, but also win two successive league titles for the first time in their history. For example, goalkeeper Jean Noel Amonome has 16 caps for Gabon at international level, defensive midfielder Warsama Hassan came through the ranks at Belgian giants Standard Liege before moving to RFC Seraing, and Yacouba Songne – who assisted the second goal – enjoyed stints at Stade Malien, Asante Kotoko, and Young Africans. Even the coach, Bouziane Benaraibi, was previously an assistant coach at Stade Rennais, Al Ahli, Monaco, Oldham Athletic, and held the position as caretaker manager at USM Alger back in 2020.

Therefore, it should come as to no surprise how Arta/Solar7 played on Saturday afternoon. For what its worth, and despite Zamalek’s dismal performance, they looked fit and up to the test, a far cry from the 9-1 drubbing at the hands of Arab Contractors. And, an even further cry from the days of when ex-Egypt international Ahmed Koshary was at the helm of the Djibouti national team due to a recommendation by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Such has been the impact of Arta’s endeavors that according to Nyckoss, FIFA President Gianni Infantino contacted him personally following Arta’s 2020/21 league triumph in order to congratulate the club on their efforts. Despite the businessman giving an approving smirk when a journalist likened the club’s accumulation of signings to that of Paris Saint-Germain, a key part of the club’s strategy extends beyond that. In 2021, he opened the AS7 fan club, alongside Alex Song and club Secretary General Malik Ali Dini. With ambitions of opening a professional training centre as well, the club looks adamant to change the sport in Djibouti, and – in Song’s words – to be one of the best in East Africa in particular.

While Zamalek still have an entire 90 minutes in Cairo to overturn the 2-0 deficit, and despite being clear favorites to do so, the rise of Arta/Solar7 has been one of the more remarkable stories in African football in recent years. One which fits perfectly with the motif of modern football. While next week might prove to be Arta’s last in African competitions this season, their rise is surely showing no signs of stopping.