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Published On: Tue, Jul 11th, 2017

Somalia, People of Football

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Somalia has never qualified for the World Cup. For a long time, whether by lack of organization, money or crippled by civil war (1966-1978 and 1986-1998) they just didn’t enter. More recently the national team had to play “home” matches in Kenya and Ethiopia. Some players have been threatened by Al Shabaab, who, like the Taliban, considers football sinfull. But, as the the President of the Somali Football Association says in the documentary film, Men in the Arena: “Our people are a people of football.”

The film is directed by American J.R. Biersmith. The main characters are two promising, young footballers, Sa’ad Hussein and Saadiq Mohamud. The first lives in Somalia (where he has been attacked and threatened by Al Shabaab), while the second lives as a refugee in Kenya. Fleeing war, they want to make it to the West and play football. The film follows their separate, and often connected, journeys (beginning with their participation in a regional tournament in East Africa) between Somalia, Kenya and the United States, becoming in the process a classic sports film, but also a corrective to one-dimensional portrayals of Somalis and Somalia, as well as political refugees. The film is now available on most on-demand services, including Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, Youtube and Hulu [from July 10th]). Here’s the trailer:

Men in the Arena official trailer

We interviewed Biersmith over email.

The film’s title draws on a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909 in Paris. It so happen that he gave the speech after spending one year hunting in Central Africa and given that Roosevelt was also quite conservative in what he thought of Africans or how he related to them, why the title?

Ambassador Fred Ngoga-Gateretese, of the African Union Commission, referenced Roosevelt’s speech when he shared his thoughts about the Somali national team’s performance in the 2013 tournament that opens the film. When you spend the kind of time we did with these guys and fully grasp what each has been through, you quickly realize they don’t care much about critics. They care about their teammates, their families and the Somali fans that come in droves to support them. We thought about Roosevelt’s expedition and the hunt that took north of five hundred animals in the name of science, but we also thought about Mandela who had passed away during the tournament and the story of his giving the ‘Man In The Arena’ passage to the Springbok rugby squad at the 1995 World Cup. The Somali Football Federation lacks the resources, technical training and medical care to compete at this level but it didn’t keep them from showing up and leaving it all on the pitch.

How is your film, say in conversation with Western films and media coverage of Somalia, like “Black Hawk Down” or the many “pirates” films and documentaries?

Sa’ad was born just outside of Mogadishu in April 1993, just six months before the October battle in Mogadishu that became the basis of Mark Bowden’s best selling book and eventually an Oscar winning film. Saadiq was born three years later in 1996, but his mom had fled Mogadishu to join his father in Kenya late in 1993. That single event changed American foreign policy and subsequently changed much of what the West came to know about Somalia. Then Captain Phillips came along, and Barkhad Abdi was nominated for an Oscar. That was a wonderful story but his character played into the single story narrative of fear. We set out to try and broaden that lens and offer up a look at the young people that have called Somalia home since the war broke.

What would you say are generalizable about the experiences of Sa’ad and Saadig?

If you’re born into a failed state I don’t know that anything is generalizable. Each family is doing their best to survive and youth grow up believing the only way to better their lives is to leave the country. Tahrib, trafficking, is all too often the path chosen despite the inherent risks. Sa’ad and Saadiq’s journey is somewhat unique because of their reputations as footballers in Mogadishu. We grew increasingly concerned about their participation in the film and inability to protect themselves given how candid they were – candor that we feared would make them targets.

In the film, the President of the Somali Football Association says Our people are a people of football.” Can you briefly outline the history of football in Somalia?  It’s highs and lows, achievements and prospects?

There is a professional league based in Mogadishu with a rich history that reached peak popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s. The sports archives were destroyed in 2010, so it’s always been a challenge to fully wrap my head around the strength of the league, but through photos and accounts shared by fans and former players we got the sense that Mogadishu stadium was once the place to be. There’s been a number of interruptions and a number of people who have taken advantage of funds allocated by FIFA towards Somalia football but I’ve come to respect the commitment by the federation to keep the league going. Without a league it’s much more difficult to draw the talent required to put a competitive national team on the field.

Watching the film, we get a sense that you went beyond reporting and became involved the lives of both Sa’ad and Saadig. Is that a correct assumption?

We knew going in this would be an extraordinarily complicated endeavor, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how difficult it would be. After the tournament in Nairobi, we knew we wanted to build the film around Sa’ad and Saadiq and that wasn’t going to be easy. I had to dig deeper to fully grasp where their lives were headed and how we could best capture their journey. When you do that, the walls come down, trust develops and truth emerges. It’s that truth that gets tucked away because of the fear of repercussions. I felt it was imperative that I deliver on the trust they placed in me.

When Saadiq came to America, he was 18 and knew nothing about this country or how he was to operate inside it. He needed support, he needed family, he needed time to grow and I along with my sister and brother-in-law realized just how important it was for him to get that support with each month that passed. Then I had to start working to get Sa’ad on safe soil because there’s no way he could stay in Mogadishu sharing what he did in the film. I never dreamed it would be the US, but once we got him in front of UNCHR in Kenya and the US State Department stepped in he was coming to America. The six months it took for him to get vetted was a nightmare. He didn’t speak Kiswahili, corrupt police got to him eight separate times chasing bribe money of which he had none, and he was surviving on food and shelter provided by Saadiq’s friends. When UNCHR called saying he was clear and he needed to make a decision about where to go in America, he said he wanted to be with Saadiq.

What are the current prospects for the Somali football team? Have things improved for the team since the election of Farmaajo as the country’s president earlier this year?

Banadir stadium has undergone extensive renovations and that’s a real source of pride for the federation. They’ve also developed another site with artificial turf so that’s a step in the right direction. Of course a return to Mogadishu stadium is the dream in large part because of what that would signal in terms of peace.

What has happened to the people (both Sa’adSaadiq, their parents and their close friend, Liban, who lives in the US and helped promote their soccer potential) profiled in the film since it was made?

Sa’ad, Saadiq and Liban all feel a constant pressure to get money home to loved ones. Much more so for Saadiq who is still learning how to meet the demands of being a Division 1 student athlete. Sa’ad is working and continuing to chip away at his English at the International Institute in St. Louis. He plays in a pick-up league on the weekends. Liban is in the process of getting his citizenship, which is exciting because now he can go after the cyber security jobs he’s long dreamed about. In the meantime he’s driving for Uber.

What are the prospects for Somalia, in terms of its political future?

Good people and good intentions can get compromised in the political theatre, and that’s certainly the case for a place like Somalia where oligarchs cling to chaos for profit and tribal alliances are given priority. Having said that, Farmajo’s election in February felt like a real moment in the long road back to peace. To see images of people pouring into the streets to celebrate was encouraging, but he has a giant task before him.

We made two trips to DC to screen the film and on both occasions the Somali Embassy in DC was extremely supportive – especially Thabit Abdi, who was recently appointed the Mayor of Mogadishu. When I think about a man like Thabit and a woman like Hadiija Diiriye, the new Minister of Youth & Sport, I’m hopeful for Somalis future. I know we are excited about the prospect of working with both to get the film in front of Somali youth.

Do you think national football teams matter? If so, how does it matter for a place like Somalia?

There are few things more instinctual than finding an object to kick around as a kid and then trying to lure another kid to join to make a game of it. Football is the global game because anyone can play as long as you can form a ball and find some open space. Somali’s love football not only because it’s what they know but because it’s an outlet for fun.

There’s a scene in the film where the Somali national team coach is speaking to all of the players in a team meeting and we thought it was important to include because it’s a window into how coaches are teaching more than just football. They’re preparing these young people to be good teammates and leaders on the field and that translates to actions off the field. The coach was constantly reminding them that the nation was watching and it was important for young people to see how they conducted themselves.

Finally, what has been the reaction to the film, and its international reception, including in Somalia itself? Do people there generally agree with its portrayal of the country and its football?

Storytellers make choices in the editing room that can help shape what an audience can feel inside of a given scene. So the very nature of that process leaves room for critique. It also opens up the opportunity for discussion and inspiration. We did screenings across the country and that was great because we got to engage in thoughtful Q&A’s and witness just how much Sa’ad and Saadiq’s story impacted people.

There’s an old adage that says journalism is first rough draft of history and we took that very seriously especially in light of the destruction of the sports archives in 2010. We approached this film by focusing on the dreams of young people and the backdrop in which those dreams were experienced.

Sa’ad and Saadiq’s  journies are a draft of Somali history. It’s their truth and that can’t be destroyed this time.

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