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30th Jan 2020

Mohamud Ali: The Mancunian driving instructor who became a Somali football hero

Simon Lloyd

“I regard myself as a Mancunian now. I love the people here, I love the place. It kind of feels like my home now.”

For Mohamud Ali, the enormity of what he and his teammates had achieved only set in when he returned to the team hotel in Djibouti City. As his phone connected back to the WiFi network for the first time in hours, he was greeted with a relentless stream of notifications and missed calls. Some were from family and friends back home in Manchester; countless more were from over the border in Somalia.

Earlier that day, a 1-0 victory over Zimbabwe had given the Somali national team their first ever World Cup qualifying win. Ali, who splits his footballing career at Curzon Ashton of the National League North with his job as a driving instructor, had assumed national hero status for the part he played.

“The phone was booming,” Ali smiles as he tells the story. “There were so many notifications and WhatsApp messages. You’d get people calling, ringing you up, calling you a legend and demanding to speak to you. There’s pictures of us everywhere in [Somalia’s capital] Mogadishu. Our names and faces will never be forgotten by the people back home.”

Ali is at the wheel of his Volkswagen Polo, weaving his way through a housing estate close to Curzon Ashton’s Tameside Stadium. It’s a dreary, typically Mancunian January morning – a far cry from the searing heat in which Somalia sealed their historic win last September. Officially, the game had been a home fixture, though political instability in Somalia saw the game played in neighbouring Djibouti.

“It’s frustrating we couldn’t play the game in Somalia,” Ali says. “That would’ve been incredible for the whole country.”

For Ali, this sense of frustration is amplified by the fact that – aged 25 – he has yet to set foot on Somali soil. As civil war broke out in 1991, his parents fled, taking his two older siblings with them. Making their way through Egypt and then to Italy, they travelled across Europe, eventually settling in the Netherlands, where Ali was born three years later.

“My two older siblings were born in Somalia, so leaving there and taking them with them was a brave decision. My parents made sacrifices to give their children a better life.”

It was in the Netherlands that Ali’s footballing journey began. As a youngster, he joined the academy of Alphense Boys, a small club based in the town of Alphen aan den Rijn – about an hour’s drive from Amsterdam. The standard was high, with Ali regularly facing youth sides from the biggest Dutch clubs, including Ajax and Feyenoord. One particular game against Ajax, the club he supports, stands out.

“I’d had a good game that day,” he recalls. “After the game, their team manager approached me after I’d had a shower and got changed. I’d been playing above my age group in that game and he let me know he was impressed at how I’d played.

“They monitored me for a while but an invite [for a trial] never came.”

Although the call from Ajax failed to materialise, Ali cites his experiences in Dutch youth football as crucial in his development as a player.

“Technically, it was great for me. I played against a lot of boys who have gone on to play professionally in England since. I played against Jetro Willems, the Newcastle full-back. There was also Terence Kongolo, who recently signed for Fulham.”

Ali was also briefly on trial with Eredivisie side Den Haag, where his path crossed with Bournemouth’s Nathan Aké. Both central defenders, they played alongside each other in a series of trial games. While Aké remained with the club and later signed for Feyenoord and then Chelsea, Ali was released.

He moved to Manchester when he was 18. By then, he was already familiar with the city having spent summer holidays visiting family members who had already settled in the area. Initially finding work in a factory, he continued to play football after joining Northwich Victoria. Older brother Ahmed had already made his debut for Somalia by this point, and Mohamud was keen to follow.

“There were some World Cup qualifiers with Niger coming up in October 2015. I quite fancied playing, so I asked my brother to have a word on my behalf. They wanted to see that I was good enough, so I made some videos of myself playing and sent them off. Thankfully, they deemed that good enough and I got the call.”

Ali watched the entirety of the ‘home’ leg – played in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa – from the substitutes’ bench, debuting in the return in Niger a week later. Despite a 4-0 defeat for the team Ali drew confidence from his individual performance. Still just 21, he looked forward to his next international appearance.

“I didn’t expect it to take four years before we played again, but that’s the way it goes,” he says with a grin. “In the time that had passed before the Zimbabwe game I had improved as a player. Playing here [at Curzon Ashton] is a higher level to the one I was at back then and it’s helped me as a player.”

In the four-year interval between those two call-ups, Ali also left his job as a factory worker and qualified as a driving instructor – a job which has afforded him the flexibility needed to continue his improvement as a footballer.

“The job has helped me get to know the people and the area better,” he adds. “I regard myself as a Mancunian now. I love the people here, I love the place. It kind of feels like my home now.”

For Ali, Somalia’s historic win over Zimbabwe is tinged with the disappointment of what happened in the away leg in Harare. Falling behind with 13 minutes to play, his side levelled on the night minutes later. With away goals in play, the equaliser should have granted them a safe passage to the next round. Instead, with only four minutes of regulation time to play, Zimbabwe scored a second. Then, deep into stoppage time, they added a third – enough to dash Somali dreams. Despite falling short, Ali is proud of his achievements and cautiously optimistic that football may finally help him reach Somalia in the next year. In Mogadishu, a 65,000-capacity stadium is being constructed. The possibility of the Somali team playing a genuine home fixture in the near future is an increasingly realistic prospect.

“I’m hoping this is the year,” Ali says. “To play in front of such a huge crowd would be an amazing experience for any footballer, but for me, it’s as much about being there for the first time, in my country. “That,” he says, “would mean everything.”