The United Kingdom is home to one of the largest populations of the Somali diaspora in the world, second only to the United States and yet, surprisingly, this football-crazy nation rarely sees the emergence of exceptional footballers from the Somali-British community.
Beyond the likes of Mukhtar Ali and Islam Feruz, there has historically been a clear shortage of Somali talent in semi-professional clubs and academies across the country; but is this a true reflection of the Somali footballing community or is there more to the story?
Though it may not be obvious to the unknowing eye, ‘Somali football’ in the United Kingdom is well and truly functioning and thriving, at that. The Somali community is known for their ability to adapt to new environments and create safe spaces for their people – and football is not exempt to this attitude.
The last decade has seen the formation of Somali teams across the country and, with this, a governing body to organise and regulate competition between the clubs. Each club participates in their respective domestic leagues under their local football association, whilst competing in cup competitions under the Union of Somali Football Association, UK.
The USFA-UK was founded in 2018 and are the organisers of the coveted Somali British Champions League (SBCL) and the Somali British Community Shield. The SBCL in particular is a long running tournament, where teams from London, Birmingham, Cardiff, and Leicester compete in a tournament for the title of the best Somali team in the UK.
Both of these incredibly sought-after titles are currently held by West London based Western Ballers FC. Despite their success, London neighbours Hilltop FC are widely considered the most established of the Somali-British clubs, as a result of their domestic triumphs.
Hilltop FC, a Charter Standard club based in Stonebridge Park, North West London, was founded in 2005 by young leaders from the local community. Stonebridge Park is notorious for its Somali locality and the club is a representation of the talent that this small neighbourhood in the capital has to offer.
Middlesex FA Cup winners Hilltop, pictured above, are currently looking to be the first Somali-owned club in the world to attain semi-professional status, a feat that could be the boost needed for Somali-British footballers to finally rise to the higher levels of English football.
The consistent display of talent, hard work, and community spirit displayed in the SBCL and Somali British Community Shield are prime examples of the potential Somali players have and those working behind them also.
Competition between the clubs is fierce and players are always working to better themselves, even if winning is a matter of pride before all else. The stereotype of Somali players being selfish most definitely comes crashing down when you see these groups of players become brothers once that whistle blows for kick-off.
These contests are surely a sign that the Somali community has a lot to offer football at a domestic level as well as international. The Somali national team, nicknamed the Ocean Stars, made history winning their first ever competitive game in 2019 against Zimbabwe in the World Cup Qualifiers and some members of that team were in fact of Somali-British origin, though not many.
Representatives of the Somali Football Federation have since confirmed that they are looking to the diaspora to bolster the national team, with Somali-British clubs likely to be one of the first places that they look as the talent is concentrated and plentiful.
Over two thirds of the Somalis living in the UK currently reside in London – despite this, the modest Somali communities in other British cities have still managed to bring forth formidable footballing talent from a smaller pool of potential players.
Cardiff Bay Warriors are the only Welsh club formally affiliated to the USFA-UK and have done exceptionally well to compete with the London giants that are Hilltop and Western Ballers. The club stands as a testament to the brilliance of Somali footballers and coaches across the UK, rather than just in the country’s capital.
The quality of players and coaching personnel in the Somali community is undeniable, but have any players actually managed to climb up the towering footballing ladder into the professional game? The answer is yes, but too few and undoubtedly too far between. There are a handful of players that, in recent years, have been standout individuals in Somali football.
Mukhtar Ali, a former Chelsea man, currently plays his football in Saudi Arabia. After being sent out on numerous loan spells by the West London club, Ali played in the Eredivisie for Vitesse before joining Riyadh’s Al Nassr FC in 2019.
Islam Feruz, born in Kismaayo, Somalia, was a great young talent in his early years at Celtic, however, after moving to Chelsea, the Somali-born striker never made his first team debut and is currently without a club.
There are countless similarities between the stories of these men and that of other budding young Somali footballers – many having to go abroad like Ali in order to get more first team appearances under their belt.
It is clear that something is missing and that there is a gap that needs to be filled in order for Somali footballers to break through the glass ceiling that is professional football.
As much as the narratives of Ali and Feruz are common, many of the stories of youthful Somali footballing protégés are still being written and this is true for 18-year-old Abdi Sharif. Sharif signed his first professional contract with Liverpool FC in June 2019, having trained with the club from the age of 6.
With the emergence of players like Sharif and the support of the growing Somali coaching network, the secluded bubble that is Somali football can soon become connected to the rest of the professional footballing world.
However, significant progression is only possible through opportunity. With the right exposure, the floodgates will open and Somali footballers could well take over English football at all respective levels.
Only time will tell but one thing is clear – the future looks promising for Somali-British footballers.