Through all of the troubles that Somalia has been through in the last couple of decades, the fate of their national football team, The Ocean Stars, was something of an irrelevance. That they recently sunk to the lowest rung of world football’s ladder is as much an indictment of the difficulties that had gone before then it is an assessment of the current crop of Somali players.
Their only recent action was in losing both legs of their World Cup qualifying first round tie with Niger, crashing out 6-0 on aggregate. The venue of their “home” leg tells the story of their problems. Civil War at home and the resulting security issues meant that it was played in Addis Ababa in neighbouring Ethiopia. Indeed Somalia hasn’t truly played at home for many years. The last World Cup qualifier played in Somalia was as far back as 1980, since when they’ve led a nomadic existence with homes in Ethiopia, Djibouti and beyond.
On the field, it hasn’t been a story of even limited success. Having been one of FIFA’s earlier African members, joining the world governing body in 1962, their fixtures have been rather sporadic ever since. Regular CECAFA Cup outings have only been interspersed with occasional ventures into the opening round of World Cup qualifying, and on only one occasion have they entered the qualifying for the African Cup of Nations; in 1974. The Ocean Stars are not taking part in the latest edition of the continental competition either, having withdrawn from the 2017 qualifiers along with fellow new worst in the world side Eritrea.
Somalia are perennially hampered by a combination of political unrest, poor infrastructure and a chronic lack of funding. These factors, added to the not insignificant matter of ongoing Civil War, have left Somalia floundering in so many respects.
“Maybe in two-three years we will be there because now we are improving,” the Somalia Football Association president Said Abdiqani Said told the BBC earlier this year. “Soon we will finish our stadium, which is under construction. In two years’ time, we hope to be part of the Nations Cup but football means funds and stability, so we will play when we have good stability, facilities and funds.”
Things are moving in the right direction at least. The national stadium in Mogadishu, once capable of holding 65,000 spectators, had run into ruin in the hands of the Islamist militant group Al-Shabab, though it has now been commandeered by the ruling African Union. But a new development, aided by considerable funding grants from FIFA, in northern Mogadishu at the Banadir Stadium had seen artificial turf laid and a rebuilt 15,000-seater stadium capable of hosting international matches.
The original artificial turf – developed with FIFA funding back in 2006 – had become damaged in all the turmoil, but the new pitch is surrounded by the fully refurbished stadium which now plays host to the ten-team Somali Football League. The league was returning to action after a seven year absence. In essence, it is really a Mogadishu league but from such humble beginnings, a fully national league will hopefully develop.
The restoration of the domestic league is matched by similar developments in grassroots football and youth tournaments, with plans to extend such programmes around the country rather than just in Mogadishu. Somalia also played host to a football development course run by FIFA. The green shoots of a revival are noticeable for the first time in years.
“Somalia has been suffering for a long time,” added Abdiqani. “We cannot compare to most of the countries in Africa which have good stability and a government that can assist them with financial expenses.”
After the years of conflict, there are signs of progress at long last, even if this coincides with the descent of the national team to their lowest ebb.
“The rebuilding of Banadir stadium has been essential,” noted Abdiqani. “It will provide us with a suitable venue to play matches on a regular basis and it will become a fundamental asset for our overall strategy.”
Ahead of the recent World Cup ties with Niger, he added: “Our big objective is Russia 2018. It seems a bit of a utopian vision, but the general situation in our country has improved and we are confident that we will be able to trigger a general development in Somali football. The national team is already in training. Every country has a dream of being at the World Cup.”
That dream would have to wait once Niger had eased past the Ocean Stars in Russia 2018 qualifying. Not that this was really a surprise result. Somalia last avoided defeat in a 0-0 “home” tie with Ethiopia – played in Djibouti – in Brazil 2014 qualifying, and their last victory was a 2009 win over Tanzania in the CECAFA Cup. The latest CECAFA Cup saw Somalia lose three out of three last month, confirming their fall to the worst in the world.
Without any Cup of Nations action to look forward to, Somalia may well not be in action until the next CECAFA Cup – much the same story as with Eritrea. Abdiqani once again: “I feel really bad, am feeling pain and it is not good in my heart that we are out of the 2017 Nations Cup. But next time I hope we will be part of 2019.”
With their off-field improvement and gradual progression that could well be a reality, but in the mean time, a prolonged stint propping up the world rankings is a distinct possibility.