MAKING OUR MARK: THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF SOMALIS IN FOOTBALL by Guled Abdi

The 5th of September 2019 will always be fondly remembered by Somalis as the day the national team made their mark on the world stage, winning their first ever World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe as Anwar Sayid Ali came off the bench to score a memorable winner.

For the footballing world, the highest-ranked team in the first round of African preliminaries Zimbabwe (ranked 112) being beaten by the lowest (at the time ranked 202) may have come as a shock, but for Somalis, the FIFA rankings were never a true reflection of our footballing abilities.

Despite the disappointment of the second leg loss, the Ocean Stars gave a generation of young aspiring Somali footballers the inspiration that one day a Somali national team could play at the biggest stage of them all, in an international tournament. But perhaps that day is a little closer than we all think.

It was especially encouraging to see the various Somali diasporas across the world relating to and building an emotional connection with the team, as they understand the struggle that Somali footballers go through to make it in the professional game.

Notably, there were many diaspora players representing the Ocean Stars – such as UK-based centre-half Mohamud Ali and captain Ahmed Ali, midfielder Mohamed Abukar and many more that play professionally in places such as Italy, the Netherlands and the USA.

Somalia national team
A photo of the Somalia national team (copyright FIFA.com)

Top row left to right:
Said Aweys, Ahmed Said Ahmed (Casanyo), Abdisamed Abdullahi, Fahad Ismail, Mohamud Ali and captain Ahmed Ali
Bottom row left to right:
Abdiaziz Safimayo, Yonis Farah, Omaraani, Abdirazaq Mohamed and Mohamed Abukar

Some of these players have come out and spoken about the difficulties that Somali footballers in general face when trying to break into the mainstream. Players such as goalkeeper Usama Yussuf have spoken about young Somali players not having a role model to look up to, adding that “because they haven’t seen a Somali player do it before, they think to themselves, ‘I can’t be the first to do it’” and as a result, they don’t develop the mentality that’s required to reach the highest level.

Mohamud Ali has gone further to outline a roadmap for how Somali talent can be developed further. He says in order to put things into place for the next generation, Somalis need football agents, football coaches, and people who can network with those in the game, so “when the next Somali kid from my neighbourhood is starting to become a good footballer, I am able to get him under my wing and support him and give him the right guidance”.

Without visible Somali role models in football and a strong support system around them, the route to professionalism becomes difficult. The recent success of the Ocean Stars should be viewed as just the start of uncovering the untapped footballing potential of our community, and this article will attempt to show the many paths to success that Somalis can achieve in the game.

Waving Our Flag: The Forgotten Lineage of Somali Football Legends

Although few and far between, the past decade has seen people like K’NAAN and Mo Farah represent the Somali people and nation in a positive light at a time when they were getting press for all the wrong reasons, ranging from terrorism to piracy and other unflattering stereotypes.

Despite Somalia not making it to Africa’s first World Cup, they stamped their mark on it nonetheless. In 2008, the Somali-born Canadian musician K’NAAN released his single “Wavin’ Flag”, which later on in 2010 became the signature tune of this World Cup. It was used as the theme tune for Coca Cola’s World Cup commercials and shot to number one in 14 countries.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUpM7xOGAlo

Even though there wasn’t a Somali team to represent Somalis at the World Cup, “Waving Flag” was a moment in time where Somalis were proudly represented on the world stage. Despite it not being the “official” anthem, this song was destined to be forever associated with the 2010 World Cup. It was embraced not only by Somalis but by people of every race and nationality, with a plethora of remixes done in multiple languages – such was the power of the song’s simple message of freedom and pride in oneself.

For K’NAAN, “it was such a proud moment because I brought out the Somali flag onto the stage in front of millions of people. That’s the thing that so many of them are talking about.” For a country that many like to portray in a negative light, this was a breath of fresh air for millions of Somalis that are immensely proud of their country and people but did not have a medium through which to express that pride.

Those of us football fans living in Europe and America in particular look towards the usual suspects that ply their trade in European top-flight leagues. Recently, the advent of social media has enabled Somalis to put their stamp on the footballing world via YouTube, whether that’s Musti from popular football channel Baiteze TV or football personality and media star Chunkz. These people have been outstanding role models for the Somali youth and represent alternative paths to achieving relevance for the community.

Of course, this is still one step removed from having Somali footballers on the world stage. The elephant in the room has to be mentioned: Somalis are craving actual footballers that both perform on the world stage and capture the imagination of the youth, and also represent their dreams turning into reality.

The generations before us that didn’t have social media to talk about or promote their stars had legends of their own that they were proud of. One in particular was a man by the name of Hassan Afif. Ethnically Somali but born in Moshi, Tanzania, Afif was recognised as one of the best players of his generation with outstanding technical ability and a serious eye for goal.

Hassan Afif pictured for the Somali national team
A young Hassan Afif pictured for the Somali national team circled in red

Hassan Afif was part of the legendary Horseed team of the 1970s who won the Somali Premier League 7 times between 1972 and 1980. In 1977, Horseed made it to the CECAFA Club Cup final, the most prestigious club tournament in East and Central Africa. They narrowly lost out to Kenya’s Luo Union (now Gor Mahia) 2-1, and in a case of what could have been, they went out in the semi-finals in the following two seasons to the eventual winners Simba and Abaluhya.

In 1991, he decided to return back to his country of birth as a player-coach for Simba, where Afif managed to win the CECAFA Club Cup that had eluded him during his youth. Even as a much older player, he was still one of the highest scorers of the tournament, earning the nickname “Roger Milla” after the famous Cameroonian maverick who scored four goals in the 1990 World Cup at the age of 38.

Hassan Afif Simba
Hassan Afif, pictured far left waving his shirt as Simba celebrate their 1991 success

There are many more players of Somali background that continue the long heritage of Somali football. Players like defensive stalwart Yousuf Adam and goal machine Mahmoud Soufi contributed greatly at both domestic and international level, representing Qatar in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and being part of a golden generation of football in the Gulf.


Left: a photo of Mahmoud Soufi playing for Qatar
Right: Yousuf Adam with coach René Meulensteen of al-Gharafa

Hassan Afif and players like him were part of a Somali golden generation of footballers that were highly regarded, both in East and Central Africa and beyond. Unfortunately, there is nowhere near the same level of recognition for Somali players, and the community is constantly searching for the next great talent. If that can’t be found in Somalia, or the large Somali diasporas of Europe and North America, then where do we look?

Uncovering Our Hidden Gems

In the downtown Doha district of Al-Sadd – one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Qatar – exists a sporting franchise that bears the same name. Their ambition was to become the best team in Asia and they recruited heavily from Europe, bringing in Barcelona great Xavi Hernandez and former Arsenal midfield sensation Santi Cazorla, who is a regular starter for the team and still showing his ability at the age of 36.

What is less publicised is their investment in the footballing youth, through their Aspire Academy. Established in 2004, it has now started to bear its fruits not only for Al-Sadd but also for Qatar through producing a range of young and talented footballers (which even includes the sons of Hassan Afif, Akram and Ali) culminating in the national team’s 2019 Asian Cup victory. The Academy is one of football’s best-kept secrets and has produced many talents that haven’t been heard of yet in the Western world.

One such player goes by the name of Yusuf Abdurisag. Born on 6 August 1999, he is a professional footballer who plays as a winger or a forward for Al-Sadd. His Instagram account shows a young man who is passionate and dedicated to the game he plays, sharing his succession of victories starting from a young graduate of the Academy as he pursues his own path to greatness.

Abdurisag got his first taste of competing against the world’s best at the U17 Alkass International Cup in 2017, facing youngsters who are now becoming established names such as Timothy Weah, Claudio Gomes, Yacine Adli, and Dominik Szoboszlai. Abdurisag turned out to be one of the shining lights of the tournament, guiding the Aspire Academy to the finals, defeating along the way Raja Casablanca, PSV Eindhoven, and at the time Marco Rose’s Red Bull Salzburg, before succumbing in the final to Real Madrid by a score of 2-0.

Abdurisag further established his reputation as one to watch at the 2019 U-20 World Cup in Poland. He was earmarked by Breaking the Lines’ Zach Lowy as the stand out player for Qatar during this tournament thanks to his “quick and slick” movement on the ball and his ability to generate chances for his teammates. He has also been impressing domestically for Al-Sadd, seen here scoring a delightful chip after a well-worked team move.

Now getting regular game time, Abdurisag has contributed to Al-Sadd’s domestic trophy haul this season. He is fortunate that he plays in a league that encourages his development, as the QSL rules state that a club can only register five foreign players in their squad. This is crucial to the football development of young footballers like Abdulrisag and allows him to accumulate consistent game time as well as learn under the management of Xavi and the experienced internationals in the squad.

In an increasingly player-led sport, players like Yusuf Abdurisag have the chance to build a loyal fan base across a range of demographics, not just within Qatar but also for millions of Somalis worldwide that follow the beautiful game.

Abdurisag representing Qatar in 2020

Somali footballers in the UK: where are they? 

The question, therefore, is why we haven’t seen many stars arise from the United Kingdom, which has one of the largest Somali diasporas in the world. Despite a few notable examples that Somalis are aware of (such as Mukhtar Ali and Abdi Sharif), there has not been a boom in Somali talent that the community craves.

Generally speaking, young Somali players often feel held back from achieving at every level. Oftentimes, Somali parents actively stop their children from participating in football, citing the importance of education and a stable career versus the lottery of a life in football. The fact that Somalis are severely underrepresented in the game feeds into a feedback loop that validates the parents’ decision to effectively ban their children from pursuing the game they love.

Some have attributed this underrepresentation to the stereotypes surrounding Somali players. Commonly categorised as technically gifted but often lacking “football IQ” and the level of decision making required to reach the top level, the quote-on-quote “Somali mentality” has been retrospectively blamed as a reason why we have not seen Somali players in the top tiers of the English football pyramid.

Iqra Ismail, director of women’s football at Hilltop FC, highlighted this issue in her own article about the future of Somali football in Britain, saying that Somali players are often stereotyped as “selfish” on the ball, and that “there is a gap that needs to be filled in order for Somali footballers to break through the glass ceiling that is football.”

However, Ismail is bullish about Somali prospects in the UK. Pointing to the success of Hilltop FC, she asserts these stereotypes come “crashing down when you see these groups of players become brothers once that whistle blows for kick-off.” Now a semi-professional team, Hilltop is a local inspiration for the Somali community, showing that there is a path for success at every level of the beautiful game.

 
Left: Hilltop FC celebrating their Middlesex FA Cup victory in 2019
Right: a picture of Iqra Ismail

The FIFA Arab Cup in December 2021 will be the perfect platform for Somalis to showcase their talent to the world as they did back in September 2019. With the highly regarded former Head of Recruitment Said Abdi Haibeh becoming manager, there is a strong possibility for Somali diaspora footballers (especially those playing in semi-professional or at the lower ends of the professional football pyramid) to play for Somalia at this tournament.

For those players, this will be an opportunity not just to enhance their career by playing on a global stage but also a chance to aid Somalia’s efforts to boost their FIFA ranking, which now stands at 197. In many respects, this is not a true reflection of the ceiling of the Somali nation which, as shown, is an untapped resource that needs to be unlocked.

The Arab Cup, the World Cup and Beyond: Looking Ahead 

We Somalis in the next two years have a lot to look forward to in football. In the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup and the 2022 World Cup, Yusuf Abdurisag will have the chance to represent not only Qatar, his nation of birth and where he plies his trade, but also Somalis across the world. Many young players in the Somali diaspora have ambitions of reaching the highest level, but it is the unlikely nation of Qatar that affords Yusuf Abdulrisag this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

For international tournaments, we would default to supporting England either due to our love of the players from our favourite clubs or simply not having any other nation to represent us besides our adopted nation. Unfortunately, there was never a Somali football player in the UK that we could boast about to our friends outside of our nationality that lasted long at the top level of the professional game.

Now with Somali footballers becoming more prominent, we should give our undivided support towards these pioneers. For the Somali nation, Somalia’s 1st leg win over Zimbabwe should just be the start, and I hope our success continues with the 2021 Arab Cup through Somalia and the 2022 World Cup through players like Yusuf Abdurisag and the Afif brothers.

It is a shame that due to COVID-19, the 2021 Arab Cup may be closed to spectators. However, preparations for spectators are already being made for the World Cup. On 21st November 2022 when Qatar plays the opening match at the 60,000 seater Al-Bayt Stadium, my dream is to see Somalis worldwide turn up to the World Cup in support of one of our own in front of millions of fans around the world at the biggest show in the world.

I trust that we as Somalis will cheer for our Somali footballers and support them wholeheartedly. Even though the Somali national team didn’t make it to the World Cup, our World Cup dream has never died – and come to the opening ceremony, we will be waving our Somali flags in support of our countrymen.

Written by Guled Abdi

Edited by Besar Zasella