Somalians on ice skates seems as implausible as Jamaicans in a bobsled, but a Sweden-based team are preparing to represent the troubled African nation at next month’s world championships for the sport of bandy.
Formed just months ago and made up of immigrants who have settled in Borlaenge, a town about 200km north of Stockholm, the Somalia bandy team is an unlikely tale that has echoes of the 1988 Jamaican Winter Olympians immortalized in the film Cool Runnings.
Recruited from a local soccer club, the team have been taught to skate in a short time and play a game similar to ice hockey, but with key differences.
Bandy is played on a soccer-sized field, there are 11 players on each team, a ball is used instead of a puck, the goals are larger and the sticks shaped differently.
The learning curve for the Somalian players has been steep, but despite being thrashed in their first-ever competitive game, they have cheekily declared themselves African champions, based primarily on theirs being the only country on the continent with a team.
“They want to inspire their brothers and sisters that live here in Borlaenge, and all other Somalians and immigrants who live elsewhere in Sweden,” team coach Pelle Fosshaug, who won six Swedish bandy titles and was crowned world champion five times with Sweden during his playing career, told reporters.
Scandinavia, Finland, the former Soviet republics and North America are considered the game’s strongest footholds, with Somalia — improbably — set to join Japan, the Ukraine and Germany in Group B at the world championships in Irkutsk, one step below the elite nations.
The idea of a Somalia team came from local entrepreneur Patrik Andersson, who saw it as a way to help integrate the about 3,000 Somalians who live there.
He contacted the Somalian government and International Olympic Committee as he looked for a way to help the new arrivals settle in the Swedish town through sport, while helping Swedes learn more about Somalia.
“I registered the team with the Federation of International Bandy and got in touch with the government and the Olympic committee in Somalia to get their permission to do this. Somalia has never had a team in a world championships, not in any team sport,” Andersson said. “Many have come in a short time and it’s not easy for them to get jobs. There is a lot of segregation.”
To help bring Swedes and Somalians together, Andersson approached a local soccer club with a lot of Somalian players and asked them if they would like to play bandy, and the idea of a Somalia national team was born.
The team is already a source of great pride to many in the local Somalian community, who packed the rickety wooden stands on a freezing night to wave their flags and see their team play its first game against a local side.
Although they were on the wrong end of a 15-0 drubbing, there is a widespread belief that the team can improve.
“These players only started playing five months ago and some of these guys have been in Sweden for less than a year,” said Said Ali, who traveled to Borlaenge from Stockholm to film and photograph the historic game.
Somalia goalkeeper Ahmed was voted man of the match, but said he was disappointed with the result, although he conceded that his team had played “OK” for their first outing.
“We want to win at all costs, but we’re looking forward to the world championships,” he said, before revealing that he only started skating three months ago.