‘Anarchic Somalia can unite now through football’
ADDIS ABABA: Somalia’s national football team may scrape the barrel of global rankings, but simply by taking to the pitch in a World Cup qualifying round match Wednesday they are defying the odds.
For Abdi Gani Said Arab, Secretary General of the Somalia Football Federation, seeing the national team play symbolises more than the game alone, it also offers a glimmer of hope for the future of his war-torn nation.
“Football is a friendly game, it is very important in terms of every aspect of social life because we have a lot of young people who are fighting for nothing,” he said.
“If they (the fighters) got a chance to be footballers they wouldn’t have done stupid things back home.”
Wracked by two decades of civil war, multiple governments have failed to create stability in the Horn of Africa nation, let alone form a competitive football team.
Famine has been declared in several areas of southern Somalia, while last month Kenyan troops moved across the border to battle rebels there.
Yet anarchic Somalia has surprised many football pundits by entering a team and making an early impression in the World Cup qualifying completion.
Somalia takes on Ethiopia Wednesday in Addis Ababa with after the first leg ended in a goalless draw in Djibouti last Saturday.
Arab said the absence of a viable state is just one of many challenges the team faces.
“Our government is very weak and they cannot even understand football. We don’t have any support from them financially, we don’t have any support from them morally,” he said.
Besides this, the country’s football stadiums were devastated by years of fighting, leaving the team with no professional grounds for practice or hosting games.
“We don’t have infrastructure like this,” he said, standing in Ethiopia’s well-maintained national stadium.
“We have only fields, but there is no grass.”
The war-shattered shell of the national football stadium in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu is currently a military base for African Union troops defending the Western-backed government against Al-Qaeda linked Shebab rebels.
This, coupled with ongoing violence throughout the country, forced the International Football Federation (FIFA) to ban Somalia from hosting matches on its soil.
Instead the team, ranked 193 out of 202 in world standings, has to travel to neighbouring Djibouti or Kenya to compete.
Despite these challenges, team member Khaled Hassan, 21, said he is happy to have reached this stage.
“It is definitely a proud moment for me, especially to be at this stage because Somalia has never really qualified,” he said.
This is only the fourth time the team has reached qualifying rounds in its 60-year history.
There is a bitter history between the two neighbouring nations: Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006, staying for three years despite bloody guerrilla attacks against its forces.
But for 25-year-old Ciisa Aden, skipper of Somalia’s team the Ocean Stars, Wednesday’s World Cup qualifying match is nothing to do with past history.
“It’s not political, we are not arch enemies,” said Aden.
“We are expecting to have a very good game and we are expecting to show our talent.”
Football is followed passionately in Somalia. On Tuesday, one child was killed and four wounded when an attacker lobbed a hand grenade into a private house, where people had gathered to watch England play Sweden on television.
But although the team is confident they will win the match, not all Somalis in Ethiopia’s capital are feeling so hopeful.
“Our country that has been destroyed for 21 years, and Ethiopia with its strong government, how are we going to play them?” said Abdu Rahman, owner of the Iman sports bar in Addis Ababa’s Somali district.
But team captain Aden says regardless of the results, he has faith that his nation can be restored through football.
“The best thing would be if Somalia can unite now through football,” he said.
“Football has brought peace elsewhere, so why not in Somalia?”