BY WIL KRAMLICH
Monday November 30, 2020
Hersi, who graduated from Lewiston High School earlier this year, represented his parents' home country in an African Cup of Nations qualifying tournament.
After a standout high school soccer career, Lewiston’s Bilal Hersi had plans to take his game to the next level.
His freshman season for Division-I Siena College was canceled due to the coronavirus, but Hersi still found a way to compete at a high level this fall. And, he said, it was a dream come true.
Hersi was selected to play for Somalia — his parents’ birth country — in the African Cup of Nations U20 qualifier tournament. He’s been selected before, but this time he started both games after not seeing the field for Somali teams during previous selections.
“It’s amazing. Putting your hand across your chest and just singing the anthem and all that was like a dream come true,” Hersi, a 2020 Lewiston graduate, said. “I always watched the senior national team and I always envisioned myself being in that moment. There’s literally no words to describe that moment. It was amazing. It was amazing. Being able to play, being able to represent my country. Not only that, like I’m not only representing the Somali national team, I’m representing Lewiston, everyone back home, and I know what that means to people back home as well, seeing someone like myself succeeding.”Playing for the Somali national team was a bit of a whirlwind experience for Hersi, traveling from Siena in Loudonville, New York, to Tanzania, where the CECAFA (East and Central African) zone qualifying tournament was taking place.
“I was training and stuff at college, and it was about a month ago they were finalizing their squad then,” Hersi said. “The head coach brought up my name and the recruiter called me on Oct. 29, about month ago, and they did whatever they can to bring me over. So I got selected.”
Hersi said a lot of dedication and effort when into earning a starting spot and playing time.
“I came to training camp a little late because the process leaving the country, as you know, is not easy. So I had to work really hard in a short amount of time to gain that starting spot,” he said. “I worked really hard, and after I worked hard it was up to the coaches and they believed in what I had to offer.”
The Somali under-20 team played its first game Tuesday (Nov. 24) against Djibouti, and suffered a 2-1 defeat after taking an early 1-0 lead. An 8-1 loss against host Tanzania two days later meant an abrupt end to the tournament for Hersi (who was held scoreless while playing primarily forward) and his countrymen.
“He is bummed with the results but proud he represented his country,” said Lewiston boys soccer coach Dan Gish, who texted with Hersi’s brother Abdibaari Hersi before the first game and throughout both contests.
Bilal Hersi said the teams Somalia faced have been practicing together for months, while its “very, very talented” squad, which had high hopes, didn’t have nearly as much time to train.
“We’re not trying to use that as an excuse, but it played a big role,” he said. “And I feel like, obviously, you want to do everything possible to make your country proud, and it’s tough that we didn’t but we fought while doing it, and that’s all you can do, what you can promise, to fight for the badge.”
Gish said he also texted Bilal before the games started.
“Just texted to wish him well and told him we are very proud of him and what an honor it is to represent his country,” Gish said. “His response was he was very thankful and loved the support that he was receiving from home.”
The support from Lewiston had a significant effect on Hersi.
“My family, like I’m getting emotional right now even talking about it, seeing them that happy and proud, and so ecstatic to just see me thriving and succeeding and representing the country that we live by,” Hersi said. “Like my dad, my mom, they would send me messages every day saying how proud. My mom and dad, I heard they were crying when they were seeing me on TV and stuff like that. And just like hearing that, seeing how happy they were for me, telling them how they are for me and how proud I’m making them, it was like a dream come true. My brothers, my siblings, all of them, and not even that, like my whole city, the whole city was supporting me and telling me how proud they are and how they love seeing me doing what I love and taking it to the next level.”
Hersi is motivated to using this month’s international experience as a step toward getting to that next level.
“When I get back, the senior team is currently looking at me. As of right now, the senior team is going to take three players from the under-20 for the training camp for the 2021 Arab Cup. It’s a really, really big cup, going to be in Qatar. And, right now, I’m just working really hard on that, and I’m working on myself for this next year,” Hersi said. “Because this experience, it opened up my eyes a lot, and there’s kids everywhere that are hungry to succeed, and I’m going to just have to step my game up, that’s all it is. I’m going to go back, work hard, and hopefully I can get the senior call-up by next winter.”
Gish sees Hersi’s ascent going even farther than that.
“You will see him at a professional level someday,” Gish said. “His brother said he gained muscle and quickness, which doesn’t surprise me with the training and nutrition intake requirements at a D-I level.”
Gish said “without question” that Hersi has the drive to make it to the professional level.