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Somalia to Siberia: An unlikely sporting fairytale story

Friday, January 24, 2014
By Matt Majendie

A Somali player gets ready to tackle the ice in training ahead of the Bandy World Championships in Russia.
A Somali player gets ready to tackle the ice in training ahead of the Bandy World Championships in Russia.

(CNN) -- They said he was crazy. And he knew they were a little bit afraid.

When a small Swedish industrial town took in thousands of African immigrants, there were some concerns as to how it would work.

The locals in Borlänge, located 200 km north of the capital, were already struggling with the economic realities of modern-day life. The arrival of 3,000 Somalis would swell the population to almost 50,000 -- raising the type of fears that have become all too common across Europe.

Last May Sweden experienced its worst riots in years following the death of a 69-year-old man who was shot by police earlier while wielding a machete in the Stockholm suburb of Husby, which has a large number of immigrant residents.

But one man thought he had the answer.

"I feared there would be problems with a lot of people coming from Somalia to a little town," says Borlange resident Patrik Andersson.

"That can make problems. I thought integration in sport was a good way to work. It's something everyone has in common. If we could just do something that everybody could get together around, it would help.

"I do think people in Borlänge were afraid as they'd not seen that situation before. I think from the start very few people have been angry with me. There have been good vibrations."

Football is often credited with bringing people together, a unifying force -- and indeed a game popular with the Somalis.

But Andersson had a better idea.

Why not get them to play the local game, Bandy -- a close relative of ice hockey?

"People on the street said I was crazy, the manager said I was crazy, the people of Somalia asked if I was crazy, the national Bandy organization too. But we are nearly there now," Andersson told CNN.
Read: Somalia - Fast facts

He has managed to bring together a team of Somali football players, none of whom had ever skated on ice before, and take them to the Bandy World Championships starting in Russia this weekend.

"Just being there is a victory whether we win, lose or draw," says Ahmed Hussain, who plays in midfield.
"OK, we want to score once but this is our victory. It will be amazing to play in our national colors, to hear our national anthem."

Hussain, who moved to Sweden five years ago, admits he was not well versed in snow or ice -- which is not surprising, having grown up in an east African country where the temperature gauge rarely drops below 23C (73F).

"Really, I thought ice was just something you put in Coca-Cola," he says, almost embarrassed by the recollection.

Andersson was well aware of the challenge he faced. The players, most of whom are 18 or 19, were not exactly natural skaters.

"I said to them they were like Bambi on ice -- the problem was they hadn't even heard of Bambi," he adds, laughing.

For Hussain, it is a welcome relief from the ordeal of living in his war-torn homeland.

"Life in Somalia was awful and tough to handle," he admits. "Every day is like a new day in Somalia.

"You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or even in the next hour. It was a clash every day. There was war and between that you could still be shot.

"My Mum took care of me, and she would keep me at home, but I have seen things.


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