Practicing in a car park: WCup qualifying for Somalia's team

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) While revelations swirl of FIFA executives in expensive suits taking millions in bribes to award money-spinning World Cups, some of the poorest teams face near-impossible challenges to make it to soccer's biggest tournament, and try their hearts out anyway.

Somalia is one of those teams.

This week, Somalia's players prepared for their opening game in Africa's first round of qualifying for Russia 2018 with a training session in a hotel car park in a shanty neighborhood on the outskirts of Ethiopia's capital city.

Running on the rough asphalt in their sneakers, and dodging the parked cars of other hotel guests, the Somali national team players didn't seem to mind.

Before Wednesday's hotel yard practice, they limbered up with a jog through the Addis Ababa neighborhood's back alleys, occasionally being startled by barking dogs. Bemused locals watched the group in their black tracksuit tops go past.

This is the 2018 World Cup for Somalia.

Somalia can't play at home, with the threat of a deadly attack by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab a daily fear in Mogadishu. So the game against Niger on Friday is in Ethiopia. With those serious problems back home in mind, the small matter of the Addis Ababa National Stadium - or any other field - not being available didn't appear to be a major problem for them.

''We have no alternative,'' assistant coach James Magala told The Associated Press at the practice session. Magala would rather talk about the match, and Somalia's aim to at least make it to the second round of qualifying, where Africa's biggest sides are waiting.

''This is going to be a home game for us even if we are not in Somalia. And we have to win,'' he said.

Should Somalia get past Niger - a giant in comparison - in their two-leg tie, they would then face four-time African champion and former World Cup quarterfinalist Cameroon.

Somalia has never made it to a major soccer tournament, understandable given its lowly FIFA ranking. It is currently in the bottom six out of more than 200 countries. For years, wrecked by violence at home, Somalia didn't even enter World Cup qualifying. Now, progress is being able to regularly put a team out on the field.

''When it comes to this team, everything started from zero,'' Magala said. ''We are now trying to build a team and at the same time trying to make it to the World Cup.''

The facilities at the training session amounted to a few plastic cones, some small yellow hurdles and two soccer balls. Crates full of the hotel's empty beer bottles were pushed to the edge of the car park to make some space. The practice began with a prayer then moved to a lively workout, with the players chattering, laughing and encouraging each other, now with tracksuit tops off and proudly wearing their green-and-white-striped team shirts. Ugandan head coach Charles Mbabazi barked out instructions.

Somalia brought four of its best players over from Europe for this World Cup qualifier, Magala said. Those ''star'' players actually turn out for amateur teams in England and the Netherlands. Most of the squad members, like Abdinasir Yusuf, play in Somalia.

Abdinasir, who likes to go by the nickname ''Hargaanti,'' meaning the leader of a hunting group in Somali, said the team expects to beat Niger. Like any other soccer player, he yearns to play at the World Cup.

But the reality is that with so few resources and so many problems, Somalia and the other 25 lowly-ranked African teams that start at the very bottom of qualifying this week probably won't come close to making it to Russia, or any other World Cup.

Abdinasir and his teammates won't become soccer superstars, yet the game isn't about money and fame here. Soccer has another role, helping keep youngsters in Somalia away from a life of violence, he said.

''I haven't joined any militant group because I concentrate on my football,'' Abdinasir said. ''That is exactly why we are here with the national team. It is to inspire the youths to go to football and not the other way.''

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