Australia’s Awer Mabil: ‘Football has been my life’s guide’ | Sid Lowe
Awer Mabil’s extraordinary story begins in the Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, but he doesn’t want it to end there. He doesn’t want your pity, either. Born to parents fleeing the Sudanese civil war, raised in a small hut, he went half way round the world then half way back again to become a professional footballer in Denmark, Portugal, Tukey and Spain. He is, he points out, one of only four Australians to score in the Champions League and now he’s going to the World Cup. In fact, it was his penalty, at sudden death in the playoff, that ultimately took the country there.
He has become a hero and, he hopes, an inspiration, embarked upon a hell of a journey against the odds. After all, he says: “When you come to Europe from Australia you’re nobody, you don’t have the respect, so you have to really work, fight.” But he knows that is not the part people usually focus on; instead his origins in Kakuma eclipse all else. And that, he admits, “starts to piss me off a lot”.
“I’ve got that title now of ‘oh, refugee kid’. It’s more for the headlines, for people to try to feel sorry for me, but they never try to understand who I am,” Mabil explains. “Not many would say: ‘he came from Australia to now play in La Liga.’ They’ll say ‘from refugee to …’ I lived in the refugee camp. I was born there, I was there until 10 when I moved to Australia. And I lived in Australia 10 years, so it’s half-half. When you pick just one side for a headline or to make people feel bad, you’re forgetting my other half. And I want to be there for everybody.
“When I arrived in Europe I had dreams to chase and a responsibility to encourage other kids: not to feel bad for my story but like ‘let’s understand how this guy faces a challenge’. I want to tell that story too, inspire people from my country, my mother’s country, around the world: that’s more important than being labelled with one thing. Some might hear my refugee story and say ‘that’s inspiring’, ‘that’s beautiful’, but others might be like ‘yeah, he’s not really …’, you know? There are kids in Australia I want to inspire, to show them there’s a path.”
In mid-June, he showed them alright, there when Australia needed him. They had drawn 0-0 with Peru in the playoff and after five penalties each, the shootout had reached sudden death. Mabil stood on the spot, alone, “in my own world”, the weight of a country upon him. He had missed in training the day before; now he scored, then watched substitute goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne save from Alex Valera. Afterwards, Mabil called his penalty a thank you to the nation. His hotel room, he said, was bigger than the hut he had grown up in: Australia had given “me and my family a chance of life”.
Mabil says: “It’s heartbreaking because on the journey my mum and her parents went through to reach the camp many people died. They were captured by the rebels trying to leave. The way they escaped, we could talk about it all night. It sounds like something from a movie but it’s something they actually went through. The war, the journey, what they faced. For me, hearing it, it’s like: ‘Woah’. What people do to keep their kids safe, what they sacrifice to give them a better life. They didn’t know how long they would be in the refugee camp, they thought they would return home. But there’s no returning home.
“I was 10 when we left Kakuma. I remember being loaded on the back of the motorbikes, my friends running after us. ‘Hey!’ ‘Hey!’ Growing up we used to say: ‘going abroad is the best thing ever’, ‘everything’s ok there, no worries’. But leaving was hard and when I came abroad, to Adelaide, I was like: ‘I want to go back.’ Our culture was always being together. I came to Australia, you have a house and it’s fenced off. You feel you can’t go and engage with the people next door. I didn’t speak the language. The first few months, I hated it.”
There was one thing, a connection. In Kakuma, Mabil had played barefooted with balls of socks; in Adelaide, it was different but still football. “And football,” he says, “is the world game, a language everybody speaks.” It helps when you’re good at it. Mabil laughs. “Everybody wants to be on your team, yeah!” he says. “Football has been my life’s guide.”
Mabil was very good at it. Inspired by Tim Cahill, only 17 on his professional debut, he set off to Europe: Midtjylland, Esbjerg, Paços de Ferreira, Kasimpasa, Cádiz. Internationals followed, and now a World Cup. “In Kakuma, I didn’t have access to watch games so when I came Australia and saw 2006 it was like: Wow! And this country is part of it? Wow. Staying up all night. I remember the final so clear with Zidane’s headbutt. And then 2010: my mum, all my family staying up, even more special because it was Africa. Now to be part of it is such a big thing.”
He made it so, for all of them. “When I was going up to take the penalty, everything shut off,” he recalls. “Just me and that ball. There’s a little thing I do before, see if the keeper buys it or not – a trade secret I’ll keep to myself for a little bit; maybe after the World Cup I can say! Then I shoot. My normal routine. I’m thinking: just do what you always do.”
Well, not always. “After every session, every player took a penalty and the day before I actually missed,” Mabil reveals. “I said ‘no, no, I’m not happy with this.’ I didn’t feel right so I told the coach I want to take it again. I [re-]did it so that the next day I felt comfortable. You bring your luck: if I hadn’t retaken that the day before I would have had a negative feeling. ‘Shit, now it’s 50-50’.”
Mabil’s goal left Redmayne to clinch their World Cup place. Sent on for the shootout, he was playing the clown, leaping about his line. “I don’t even think the goalkeepers knew he was going to come on,” Mabil admits. “Matty [Ryan] is our captain, he played in the Premier League for years, he’s our No 1, so I was shocked. I saw Matty, we had eye contact, it was the last minute. But how he handled showed why he’s our captain. He set the ego aside. ‘Ok, this is my role’.”
Redmayne saved, his antics getting into Peruvian heads. “The whole game was very mental,” Mabil says. “That few weeks was the most mental challenge I’ve had as a player, given what was on the line. Some were against us, a lot of the media saying we’re not going to make it. Peru thought: ‘Australia, who’s Australia?’, that it was an easy game, which gave us an advantage. Afterwards that you think about what Andrew did and think ‘shit, that was hilarious.’ They made fun of it in Peru, there are memes of him as a bullfighter. But, hey, it worked!”
“I probably didn’t realise how big reaching the World Cup was until I went to Australia after the qualification: at the airport, in the city, everybody was like” ‘oh, thank you!’,” Mabil continues. “That motivates you to qualify directly next time because the stress [of the playoff] isn’t fun: it ages you fast.”
“I don’t think people realise how hard it is, especially with Corona [coronavirus]: we played maybe 20 games and only three or four at home. Isolated, unable to get out. European teams travel two hours and go two days before. A lot of our players are overseas so it’s a 24 hour journey: fly today, get there tomorrow, as soon as you’re off the plane, train. Your body clock’s messed up and other countries make it difficult, delaying you at the airport, giving you bad training pitches ...”
“That makes you stronger. We broke the record – 11 wins running. Us Australians are better the hard way, backs against the wall. This group is special, the circumstances made us stick together even more. Especially when everybody was saying ‘they won’t make it, they’re one of the worst Australian sides we’ve seen’. That’s just people talking, and it’s not true – if anything, we’re one of the best.”
They’ll have to be: the world champions await, alongside Denmark and Tunisia. But that, says Mabil, “is how we like it.” There’s an edge to his analysis, a determination: that other journey again. It’s about respect, he says.
“We don’t have that yet. Come to Europe and South Americans are regarded as Gods because football’s their sport. There are a lot of Australians who are better than South Americans or Europeans but just get judged differently. It’s like me coming here: ‘Australian?!’ Get on the field and they’re like: ‘oh, you don’t play like an Australian.’ And I ask: ‘how should an Australian play?’ They think an Australian doesn’t dribble, do skills, play football. When you start expressing your football, they’re like ‘oh shit’. That image will change. It’s only a matter of time.”
“We have high expectations,” Mabil insists. “Australia reaching a World Cup is almost ‘normal’ now although it’s been a while since we won a game there. But we’re not satisfied just to be there; we want to produce great performances, reach the next round. That’s our target. Our dream is last eight or last 16: a powerful statement for our next generation. Football is No 1 now in Australia for kids’ [participation] and the further we go, the more it helps that grow, and when you engage in sport you automatically have a better society.”
“It’s not just winning games, it’s the impact: I know the impact it had on me in Adelaide, watching 2006. It rolls on like a snowball. The targets aren’t just for us. As footballers, you have such a short window representing your country and for me what matters is what it gives the next generation. All the work I do now is to inspire them.”