By Tom Balmforth
SUKHUMI — There are plenty of things the Somaliland soccer team lacks: a training camp, a full-time coach, even an internationally recognized country to represent. And after two games in an obscure tournament in the breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia, the team did not have a single goal to its name.
But Somaliland’s players, several of whom live in North London, are getting plenty of attention in their homeland — a self-proclaimed state in the Horn of Africa where their campaign has been splashed over the newspapers.
The Somaliland Football Association was set up in the British capital by two friends who left Africa more than 20 years ago, but “wanted to give something back,” said Ilyas Mohamed, 32. Like the other 11 other teams competing in the Conifa 2016 World Football Cup — among them Kurdistan, Chagos Islands, Western Armenia, Padania, and Panjab — the Somaliland squad does not represent an actual country with international recognition.
“I’ve been getting phone calls from my family, saying ‘you’re famous’,” said Guiled Aden, 25, a PE teacher in London who is playing center back for Somaliland. “My younger brother called me yesterday and said, ‘Wow, everyone knows you now!'”
Outside the breakaway territories, cultural regions, and groups of stateless people fielding teams, the tournament in Abkhazia — itself a separatist region of Georgia, recognized only by Russia and a few other states — is virtually unknown. Conifa and its teams are not recognized by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
Georgia’s government has scoffed at the tournament, saying it lends no legitimacy to the “regime in control” of Abkhazia. Tbilisi has also warned that players entering the breakaway region from Russia would be banned from Georgia and subject to criminal prosecution.
But each of the teams — from Raetia and Northern Cyprus to Szekely Land and United Koreans of Japan — has its reasons for taking part. Some see the tournament as a stepping stone on the path to statehood, others as a platform to shed light on their cause.
For the founders of Somaliland FA, the main thing is the charity value of their ‘World Cup’ bid.
Somaliland’s Football Association was set up by Mohamed and Aden, 25, and evolved out of their charity work. They left Somalia as small children in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when their homeland was torn apart by war.
Somaliland is a former British protectorate. In 1960, the territory merged with Italian Somaliland into independent Somalia. In 1991, the northern chunk that had once been under British rule declared independence after the region plunged into anarchy following the ouster of Somalia’s ruler.
In 2013, Mohamed and Aden set up a charity soccer tournament between teams from Somaliland’s diaspora in Britain to raise funds they say have been used to feed poor families and sponsor sports in Somaliland. It evolved out their charity, the Not 4Gotten Foundation, which they set up in 2010. They used the tournament to spot strong Somaliland footballers in the United Kingdom.
“I sat down with Ilyas and we talked about how we can go about helping sports [in Somaliland] and taking Somaliland worldwide. We came across Conifa and did some research and decided to create a national team,” Aden said.
Speaking to RFE/RL outside the team hotel in the rundown town of Gagra as motorists driving past tooted greetings at the traveling footballers, Aden criticized the de facto Somaliland government for failing to organize something similar in the quarter-century since the independence declaration.
“I’m proud of what I did for my country. The government couldn’t do it. I’m 25 years old. The country [has] existed 25 years. No one has ever organized football, a national team, or a local league or anything,” he said. “It’s a massive achievement, but it doesn’t stop there.”
Having set up the football association in 2014, they organized Somaliland’s first ever international games.
They took on rivals such as the Principality of Sealand — a platform off the British coast where a family declared sovereignty in 1967, and whose website advertises “Lord, Lady, Baron, or Baroness” titles for 29.99 British pounds and up. Other teams they have faced represent the Tamil Eelam, an unrecognized Tamil speaking region of Sri Lanka, and an Indian Ocean archipelago from which the Chagossian people were evicted by Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Somaliland team playing in breakaway Abkhazia consists mostly of players from the United Kingdom. The organizers brought four players from Somaliland, where poverty and instability are prompting many to migrate to Europe.
“This is a whole different world to them. They’ve never been on a plane. They’ve never been outside the borders of Somaliland,” said Omar Abdillahi, 29, the team’s player-coach. “Their friends have died trying to get to Europe.”
The founders say they hope the tournament will resonate in Somaliland and show that there are opportunities for talented young men and women that do not require leaving the country.
“You just have to give them ambition and that will stop talent from [leaving the country],” said Abdillahi, 29. “It shows that we can develop our people.”
“Do you know how many Mo Farahs there are in Somaliland?” asked Mohamed, referring to the British distance runner, who was born in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
“That’s wasted talent. Can you imagine every one of them running?”
With shutout losses in its first two games, Somaliland has no chance of winning the Conifa cup.
But Abdillahi is taking the long view.
“The tournament happens every two years. Next time we can prepare a lot more. There’ll be a lot more people helping us financially and we can be a lot prepared. We’ll have a training camp,” he said.
Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty