In representing a country that remains unrecognized by the international community, the Somaliland national team is making a statement both on and off the pitch.
Over on the south side of Dulwich Park, where middle-class couples go on romantic bike rides and young professionals handle their children as they chatter idly at the Pavilion Cafe, a football match is taking place. Though played to the same backdrop of parkland and dense green foliage, the scene contrasts markedly with the genteel Saturday afternoons being had only a few hundred yards away. Contesting the game are Peckham Town, a non-league outfit who usually play in the Kent County Football League Premier, and a side whose white shirts and green shorts reflect the colors of their national flag. This is the Somaliland national team, and they are here to represent a country that the international community does not recognize.
When wearing the national colors of a country that is not officially acknowledged as independent, it is impossible not to make a political statement of sorts. It is a complex situation which has led to Somaliland existing as a de facto state but being snubbed by the international community, and one tied up in Somalia’s national legacy and historical divisions in East Africa. Comprising a sizeable chunk of territory in the northwest of what on a map of the world would simply read ‘Somalia’, Somaliland made a unilateral declaration of independence from its mother country in 1991, this after the collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship and the end of the first stage of the Somali Civil War. Towards the end of his decades-long reign, Barre had attempted to preserve his crumbling regime by waging a bloody war in the north of the country – this on top of his customary human rights abuses – which many would now class as an act of genocide.
When Barre’s regime fell owing to pressure from various rebel groups in the south, the brutal treatment of Somaliland at the hands of his forces no doubt helped to foment a desire for independence. While the southern regions of Somalia have subsequently been plagued by further conflict, chaotic government, tribal tensions and fundamentalist terrorism, Somaliland has experienced a sustained period of relative stability and peace. It has its own currency, judiciary, army and police force, a workable state apparatus and a fledgling multi-party democratic system, making it considerably more functional than many of its regional counterparts. Drought conditions and fears of famine have made life in certain parts of Somaliland much more perilous in recent times, but the overall picture since their declaration of independence is considerably more positive than that of Somalia itself.
So why does Somaliland remain unrecognized and without de jure independence, despite its relative success as an autonomous and self-governing state? The answer is essentially that, owing to the precarious situation in Somalia – a country that harbors a whole host of secessionist movements and is crisscrossed with ethnic and tribal faultlines – the global establishment has decided that officially recognizing Somaliland could set off a regional powder keg. As with many African countries, the borders of Somalia were drawn arbitrarily by the former colonial powers in the region, and as such they inadequately reflect ethnic demographics on the ground. The African Union, to which the rest of the world tends to acquiesce on such matters, has consistently refused to acknowledge Somaliland because to do so – at least according to their logic – might encourage secessionist states elsewhere.
Of course, this line of thinking should not necessarily take precedence over a people’s right to self-determination, especially when Somaliland is a functional nation state in practice. There is also a major precedent for its independence, which can be traced back to its colonial history as British Somaliland, but that is perhaps a geopolitical point of order for another day. One way or another, many Somalilanders desperately want their country to be recognized by the international community and have attempted to raise awareness of their fight for nationhood in a wide variety of ways. One of the mediums through which they express their national identity is football, which brings us back to the stretch of parkland that serves as the home of Peckham Town.
The Somaliland national team is an embryonic entity, and still at a point where a friendly against a non-league side is a good test of their abilities. Just as Somaliland is unacknowledged by the rest of the world, so too is their football team unrecognized by international football organizations like FIFA and the Confederation of African Football. Instead, they are associated with the Confederation of International Football Associations (CONIFA), a non-profit organization comprised of de facto nations, autonomous regions, minority peoples, stateless populations and nations not affiliated to football’s world governing body. The national team is the brainchild of a group of Somalilanders living in Britain, and so has strong links to the Somali diaspora in Europe.
Somaliland fulfilled their first proper fixture in London in 2014 against Sealand, the enigmatic micronation based on an offshore platform in the North Sea. They drew that fixture 2-2, and have since gone on to compete at the 2016 CONIFA World Cup. Though they went out at the group stage of that particular tournament, eventually placing 10th out of 12 teams above only Raetia and the Chagos Islands, the experience of traveling to Abkhazia – a partially recognized republic north of Georgia – was a formative one. There was some controversy at the tournament, however, with the national football federation of Somaliland disassociating themselves with the team owing to their existence outside of its official remit and the affiliation with CONIFA, which some considered at odds with Somaliland’s ambition to be recognized by major international organizations. So, over the course of the competition, a team representing a marginalized nation found themselves somewhat marginalized in turn.
The Somaliland national team is something like a grassroots international side, then, organized outside their home country and self-reliant in terms of funds and support. Speaking to Ilyas Mohamed, currently the national team chairman, it becomes apparent just how much effort has gone into establishing the side. He tells me that the players and organizers have put thousands of pounds of their own money into travel, accommodation and equipment, and that they have to budget with the utmost caution depending on what’s coming up on their calendar. Their starting lineup also varies considerably, with the team facing Peckham Town mainly drawn from London’s Somali community. For obvious reasons, the logistics of contesting a friendly in SE21 are considerably more straightforward than getting a team to Abkhazia.
When the national team traveled to the CONIFA World Cup, they managed to gather players based in other parts of Europe as well as a few from Somaliland itself, using social media to connect with eligible players and coaches before coordinating their travel arrangements. Still, because of financial and logistical restraints, this is only really feasible for major events. Their friendly against Peckham Town might not have an international profile, but it has drawn a crowd of around 120 spectators, this including a group of moonlighting Dulwich Hamlet fans who set off smoke bombs in Somaliland colors. Matchday contributions raise over £600 for charities attempting to tackle the drought in Somaliland, with the game having a stated aim of raising awareness of the cause.
“We try to stay away from politics, and focus more on the aspect of friendship,” Ilyas says of the team’s philosophy and view on Somaliland’s international standing. “Still, we want people to know that we are a struggling country, and we need the rest of the world’s support.” Whatever their present relationship with the powers that be in Somaliland, the national team clearly see their role as helping to raise the country’s profile, not only in pursuit of international recognition but also in terms of its immediate problems. “We have a dual strategy, and that’s to build a team football-wise and at the same time to raise awareness of issues like the drought,” Ilyas adds.
Nonetheless, Ilyas seems to recognize that it’s hard to shy away from the innate political statement of representing Somaliland, even if the national team would like to distance themselves from conspicuous political messaging. “At the moment, Somalilanders feel neglected, and we feel we have a right to be amongst the rest of the world. But as a team we are not aligned politically. It’s all about building relationships with people.” He certainly seems to want to build closer ties with the sporting authorities in Somaliland, mainly in the hope of increasing the resources available to the team. As it stands, their funds are largely donations from the British Somali community, with players and organizers sometimes resorting to collecting at shops and restaurants in order to fund the team.
Ilyas, who lives and works in London himself, was moved to help establish the national team after a visit to Somaliland in 2010. “When you’ve been living in London for a very long time, and then you go back, it’s a reminder of your history,” he says. “You’re grateful for what you’ve been given – a chance in life – and so these guys here have got together to give something back to the people.” Having witnessed the conditions there and thought about the disconnect between the Somali diaspora in Europe and their homeland, he decided that a national side would be a good way of building bridges and fostering bonds. “As these guys grew up, they didn’t necessarily have that identity of coming from Somaliland,” Ilyas says of the national team’s British-born players. “We thought: ‘Okay, well why don’t we initiate it?’ They have dual nationality, they are British as well, but we also want them to have a better idea of who they are.”
If there is one other development that Ilyas thinks would improve the team in the future, it is more experienced coaching and management. There is certainly a long way for Somaliland to go on the pitch, as evidenced by the fact that their match against 11th-tier Peckham ends in a 4-0 loss. Once again there are logistical issues at work, in that the lads playing mainly represent Sunday League sides and have relatively little time to train with each other. That said, they are still in good spirits come the end of the game, with the opportunity to get a national team cap on a pitch in West Dulwich not one which presents itself all that often.
Come full time, there are a few snatched moments to speak to central midfielder Khalid Jama and defender Guiled Hussein, both of whom have featured in the game and are visibly exhausted. No matter the complex geopolitical sensitivities of representing Somaliland, they give a fairly straightforward account of what it means to play for their national team. Khalid, who has made six appearances for the side including at the CONIFA World Cup, says: “It’s massive to play games for my team, my country. Hopefully, we will one day get recognition from the international community and we can see this team at the FIFA World Cup. That’s what we’ve got to aim for.” While that might be a fair way off for Somaliland, there’s no harm in having a vision for the side. Meanwhile, Guiled, a teacher by profession, is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. “We’d like to see recognition from the rest of the world. Obviously, though, just representing your country – there’s no bigger honor than that.”