Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
THE Warriors’ return from the World Cup wilderness was never going to be a straight forward affair – a last-gasp relegation into the preliminaries has now been followed by a date against the continent’s weakest football team which last won a match 10 years ago.
And, which last played a match at home 33 years ago.
Exactly six years after their last World Cup qualifier, the Warriors will take on the Ocean Stars of Somalia – Africa’s lowest-ranked national football team which has been crippled by years of civil strife in its country – in a 2022 World Cup preliminary round battle in September.
Somalia and Eritrea are ranked 202nd on the FIFA rankings, making them the lowest-ranked national football team in Africa, and one of the weakest on the globe.
The Warriors are returning to the World Cup after being barred from the qualifiers for the tournament held in Russia last year when ZIFA ignored repeated warnings from FIFA to settle a debt owed to former coach Valinhos of Brazil, or face dire consequences.
A drop, one place down the African rankings last week, saw the Warriors drop into the two-legged preliminaries whose winners will move into the main draw where 40 teams from the continent will be split into groups of four with the winners moving into the final phase of the qualifiers.
Now, they have to beat Somalia, who will host the first leg on neutral soil, because of concerns over the safety of visiting teams in Mogadishu, in matches set for September 2-10, for the Warriors make it into the main draw.
And, after their last World Cup qualifying campaign brought the likes of Mohamed Salah to Harare, where the Liverpool forward scored a hat-trick at the National Sports Stadium in a 4-2 victory for the Pharaohs on June 9. 2013, the Warriors now have to deal with obscure opponents.
No wonder, after the draw in Cairo, Egypt, yesterday, many of the Warriors’ fans were asking – do they play football in Somalia, do they have a national team in that country?
Of course, they do, and, yes, they have, but it’s quite a bizarre set-up.
Only Cayman Islands, Pakistan, British Virgin Islands, Tonga, Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Bahamas and San Marino are considered by FIFA to be weaker football nations, in the entire world, than Somalia.
The Somali Ocean Stars’ home ground, the Mogadishu National Stadium, last hosted an international match in 1988 when an Olympic qualifier was played there and, between 2008 and 2011, it was used as a base by the Islamic militant Al-Shabaab group which considers football to be evil.
Al-Shabaab also used the stadium for some gruesome things, including public executions, when the facility was under their control.
Eight years ago, troops from the African Union’s Peacekeeping Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) took control of the stadium but also turned it into their operational base.
Recently, AMISOM handed over the stadium, which is now in a state of disrepair and still bears the scars of the wars that have been fought around it, with its walls peppered with bullet holes, to the Somali football authorities and they started with clearing the weeds.
Somalia have not played a competitive home match since 1986 when they hosted Uganda in a ’88 Nations Cup qualifier which ended goalless but the Cranes sailed through 5-0 on aggregate.
Their last competitive match was at the weekend, in a CHAN qualifier against the Ugandans, which the Somalis lost 1-3 on neutral soil in Djibouti.
Since beating Tanzania 1-0, in a friendly international 10 years ago, the Somalis have lost 24 of the 25 matches they have played in the World Cup, Nations Cup, CECAFA and friendly matches, with their only positive result being a goalless draw against Ethiopia.
That victory is the only one they have managed in the past 10 years.
They scored only once, in that victory over Tanzania, in the first 17 matches they played after the turn of the millennium.
But, to some extent, football has been fighting back in Somalia and last month, the country announced it will be represented in the CAF inter-club tournaments, for the first time in 30 years.
In September 2017, Somalis were able, for the first time in 30 years, to watch a floodlit football match. CAF president Ahmad Ahmad has already visited Mogadishu and said he will support the country’s quest to bring back international matches to their doorsteps once all the security guarantees can be obtained.
“Holding friendly matches in Mogadishu will help a lot to encourage sports and help Somalia regain its sports glory and I have asked Djibouti and Somalia to start playing the first friendly matches”, Ahmad said.
So, how did the Warriors – who featured at the 2019 AFCON finals – ended up being paired against such football lightweights in their return to the World Cup qualifiers?
Well, they are the only team that were in Egypt, at a festival for the continent’s top 24 nations, who will have to play the two-legged World Cup preliminaries.
Namibia, Angola, Guinea Bissau, Burundi and Tanzania were also at the 2014 AFCON finals but now have to play in the 2022 World Cup preliminaries.
Until the latest FIFA world rankings released last week, the Warriors were not part of the preliminaries but a fall, one place down the African ladder, saw them missing out while the Central African Republic benefited at their expense.
Are there any prominent Somali footballers?
Mukhtar Ali is one of them, his family led Mogadishu in 1997 to London when he was only five and he joined Chelsea when he turned 11 and today he plays for the London side’s Dutch feeder club Vitesse.
Abdisalam Ibrahim, who was born in Somalia in 1991, actually featured in the English Premiership in a goalless draw between Manchester City and Liverpool before moving to Norway to play for Viking FK.