Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The sound of sharp steel blades scratching the skating rink's ice
pierces the chill air as players on wobbly legs hunt a bright pink ball
with wooden sticks.
This is Sweden, but the players are Somalis.
Hailing from a country that touches the Equator, they hope to shine in
bandy, an ice hockey-type sport popular in countries blessed by the
The Somali national bandy team has stood on ice only
a handful of times before, but with the coaching of Swedish bandy pro
Per Fosshaug, they have their sights set on the 2014 World Championships
opening in late January in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.
is easier," said high school student Ahmed Hussein, smiling shyly when
asked about their progress. "Everyone can play football, but
ice-skating... It can be learned, of course, but it requires time and
Leaving war-torn Somalia as a refugee four years ago,
the now 18-year-old never imagined life as a bandy player, even less
that he would feature in a Swedish film. Today, both have come true for
Bandy -- in which teams of 11 players reach extreme speeds on
football pitch-sized ice fields -- goes back more than a century, but
it has caught on in only a handful of countries.The sport is dominated by A-group nations Sweden and Russia, relegating an ice hockey superpower like Canada to the B group.
is in this second tier that the Somali players travelling to Irkutsk
will vie with a number of nations ranging from Afghanistan to Argentina.
unlikely as the story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988
Olympic winter games, the Somali bandy team's trip to Siberia is now
making it to the movies.
The popular Swedish TV duo Filip and
Fredrik are preparing a feature-length documentary on the team to be
released on Sweden's national day, next June 6.
It all started as an integration project, initiated by team manager Patrik Andersson early this year.
says he and his friends were out on a pub crawl when they began
discussing how to work together on the challenges faced by Borlaenge, an
old industrial town 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of Stockholm.
among these challenges is the steady growth of the immigrant
population, with the Somali community made up mostly of refugees now
numbering 2,000 of a total population of 50,000.
recounting how the idea of the bandy team gradually took form, said he
thought creating bridges between coexisting cultures "would make
Borlaenge a good city to live in".
The vision is whole-heartedly
embraced, and partly financed, by the municipal government, which sees
the immigrants as an asset that can help counterbalance the gradual
ageing of the town's population, according to municipal official
"On the labour market, there won't be enough labour, so it's very good from that aspect," he said.
The community's sport
a parking lot in Tjaerna Aengar, a residential area created under a
1960s national housing programme, Andersson is waiting to pick up a
group of Somali bandy players in his white Toyota.
From the small
lanes connecting the three-storey apartment blocks, players arrive on
bikes or on foot, and Andersson and other volunteers drive them to the
sports facilities in the town?s outskirts.
The hockey arena where
they train until it is cold enough for outdoor ice has seen many players
passing through since it opened in 1970 -- part of the town's long
history with the sport.
Slightly behind schedule, the eager
players, wearing colourful helmets, are ready for kickoff. After a
warm-up with exercises around rubber tires placed on the ice, it is time
for the fun part, a leisurely game resulting in many tumbles and a 4-4
Bandy is the community's sport, more so even than soccer, and
the idea of being associated with the world's first African bandy team
has enthused the local team, which has helped provide equipment.
course, the biggest challenge is to shape a team and make them bandy
players. It will take time, for sure," said Fosshaug, supervising the
The problem is that with just over three months
to go before Irkutsk, time is of the essence. But in any case, Fosshaug
added hurriedly, winning "is not the only goal".
A berth in the
Irkutsk championships is already secured, as the Sweden-based Federation
of International Bandy agreed to admit the Somali team based mainly on
the recommendations of Fosshaug, one of the sport's heavyweights who
helped win gold for the Swedish team five times between 1993 and 2005.
this unusual entree, the Somali team will become the first in bandy
history to compete in the world championship without having been tested
on the ice in a real match.
The road to Irkutsk will be long, but
they are all convinced they will succeed -- because with this team,
success will not be measured in medals alone."To get there is a fantastic achievement," said Andersson. "We won't need to score any goals. Just being there will do."