World Cup qualifier first sees Somalia defeat favourites Zimbabwe: Exclusive interview with captain Ahmed Ali

Somalia National Team

It was probably the most unexpected outcome of the FIFA World Cup Qualifying round, but it's an outcome that will last forever in the hearts of Somalis all over the world.

Somalia is one of the lowest ranked teams in the world and the hopes were not high for the team as they took on favourites Zimbabwe in the first qualifying round of the FIFA 2022 World Cup.

With what was about to look like a hard done by 0-0 scoreline, Anwar Shakunda headed in for the home nation in the 86th minute giving them their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualifying win. 

For a country that has seen no footballing success for eight years, this was a huge moment but what is more important is the context and the timing.

Until a year ago, the current national team did not exist. It was nothing but an idea that resided in the mind of London-based footballing agent, Saeed Haibeh.

"The organization behind the success of the win against Zimbabwe is something that started well over a year ago. It was April 2019 that we started putting plans together to improve the national team. It was agreed that I would aid the recruitment of diaspora Somalis."

Previously only three foreign-based players were able to play at a time for the national team. This naturally haltered the progression and created great difficulty in recruiting and upskilling players. However, the Somali FA were keen to change that and supported Saeed in his recruitment of players.

Haibeh, now head of player recruitment for the Somali Football Federation and Footballing Association said: "It wasn't tough to find players. The difficulty came with communicating to their clubs and liaising with their clubs for them to be released for international duty. It was a bit of a challenge, but we managed to succeed in the end."

And succeed he did, after all their previous win dates back to a 1-0 victory over Tanzania 35 years ago. This could not come soon enough, but this historic win hasn't come easy.

With over 1 million Somalis displaced since the breakout of the civil war in 1991, unrest and security concerns are one of many reasons why the team have moved their home games to neighbouring Djibouti. Yet, this hasn't left them without support; they were trending on Twitter and over 20,000 tuned into the live stream on the official FIFA website.

Somalis all over the world supported and sent words of encouragement to the team for their continued success. 

Somali National Team

Captain Ahmed Ali has been part of the national team since 2012 and provided the assist for the goal. He is no stranger to working with a new team. He previously played in the Netherlands, England and Qatar – "I've seen the team develop to what it is today. I've been pushing personally to change the mentality and invest in Somalis all over the world to be recruited."

There is no hiding how excited the team are and how proud he is as the captain. He continues: "I think this is monumental for us.

"We are showing the rest of the world that diaspora Somalis are just as much Somalis as those that live in the country and we should be not punished for our parents having to flee and seek refuge abroad due to the war."

Ali is hopeful but equally honest that the team is optimistic but balanced and they understand that they may not be the best right now. He stresses there is more to do for the future success of the country. 

"This changes the narrative, but it doesn't end now. We need to register for more international games to help us improve, be tested and gain experience. Whenever there is an international break, we should be arranging friendlies to ensure we prove and eventually make the world stage at events like the World Cup.

"We gave the nation hope, and once there is hope, success will ultimately follow."

Having spoken to both Saeed and Ahmed, it's uplifting to see how hopeful they are. They ultimately appreciate the support and are confident for the game, but both stress it does not end now. There is so much more Somalis can do to support the national team. Saaed summaries it perfectly,

"Football is a universal language that all nations around the world speak. Football unites communities, and we hope this small story of victory unites Somalis all over the world. We are a small nation, and this has been long-awaited.

"Where there is a belief, there is a success, and now that we have tasted success, we are here to stay.

The Ocean Stars continue their World Cup Qualifying journey on Tuesday at 14.00 in the second leg of the qualifier against Zimbabwe. The game can be streamed live via FIFA.com or the official FIFA YouTube channel.

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