Australia’s Awer Mabil: From refugee camp to the World Cup


You’d struggle to find an international footballer who wouldn’t say they were proud to play for their country.

With Awer Mabil though, it’s not just a platitude.

For most, the national team you represent is an accident of birth, a country you might have a difficult, pre-determined relationship with. For Mabil, Australia represents something more than basic patriotism.

“There’s nothing that makes me prouder than playing for Australia,” he says, “because they gave me and my family a chance — a chance of life, to restart. That for me is something I never take for granted, and my family is forever thankful.

“For me, (playing and winning) is the only way to thank Australia, because I can’t say enough how much this country has meant to me. It’s my country now,” he added, speaking before the World Cup.

Mabil wasn’t born in Adelaide, the place he now regards as home. He was born over 11,000 miles away, in a refugee camp in Kakuma, north Kenya, to South Sudanese parents. He lived in that camp for the first 10 years of his life, for the most part in a one-room hut into which him, his mother, his brother and sister were crammed.

Awer Mabil

Mabil playing for Adelaide in 2012 (Photo: Morne de Klerk via Getty Images)

They were given food by the UN, but it was only just enough to go around; enough for one meal a day — enough to give young Awer the energy to play football, which he did with the other kids, using whatever they could find for a ball.

“It was nothing organised,” he says. “I would just play around with my friends, and my cousin, with plastic balls, balls made out of papers, some made up of clothes.

“Those are the best memories, because you are just playing freely. That’s where you express yourself.

“As you become professional, it gets more serious because it becomes a job. Sometimes if you don’t remind yourself of why you started playing football, or why you started doing whatever it is you do in your life later on, then it’s easy to forget the joy.”

When he was seven or eight, his family began the long, complicated process of trying to apply for a humanitarian visa. They had the help of his uncle, who had moved to Australia a few years earlier. He helped the rest of the family wade through the bureaucracy and pay for flights from Kenya. When Mabil was 10, they reached Australia.

This was their new start, the beginning of a life outside the refugee camp, which to that point was all Mabil knew.

“The first year and a half, two years, I couldn’t speak the language. I didn’t join a football club until I was maybe 13, I think. My uncle helped me join my first club. He spoke English and a lot of gratefulness goes to him because he sacrificed a lot (to get us to Australia).”

The remarkable thing about Mabil’s love for Australia is that it could easily have gone the other way. The country’s relationship with immigration and racism could, historically at least, be generously be described as ‘tricky’, and Mabil suffered plenty of aggressive prejudice when he arrived. In an interview with the BBC a few years ago, he described an occasion when neighbours attacked him after he arrived home and told him to return to Kenya.

But Mabil has said he doesn’t regard Australia as a racist country, because it was the country that gave him a chance.

“I know that where I came from, the kids don’t really have that opportunity. I knew when I came to Australia that I’m representing these kids, and I always think, ‘OK, there’s kids there that don’t have the chance that I have, so I’m going to make sure that I work hard and then represent all of them’.”

And now he’s at the World Cup as part of an Australian team missing the big names of the past, like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer and Tim Cahill. However, Mat Ryan, Aaron Mooy and the naturalised Scot Jason Cummings (Scottish nickname: Cumdog; Australian nickname: Cumdingo — genuinely) have all done their thing in Britain, and Newcastle’s new signing, 18-year-old Garang Kuol, is in Qatar too.

Australia’s Keanu Baccus, Jason Cummings and Mabil during a training session in Doha (Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

But if you didn’t know many of the other names before the tournament, Mabil might be the one you’ll be talking about afterwards. He is one of Australia’s more potent attacking threats, a right-footed left-winger, pacy, and with a direct style that still has heavy dollops of the un-coached joy he spoke about. During Euro 2020, it was said that it was like watching the concept of fun play football when Bukayo Saka was on the pitch. It is similar with Mabil.

Mabil came on in the 73rd minute for Australia against France earlier this week to complete his journey from refugee camp to World Cup.

“Football has always been fun for me and it will continue to be fun, because it was a way for me to save my life. Because when I played football (in the refugee camp), it made me forget about the things we were facing. It brought happiness to us and brought happiness to me.

“I didn’t think about the conditions I was living in or my family was living in. I was just enjoying myself every time I played. So I always try to remind myself of why I play football. I play for the joy of it, and to bring others joy also. That for me is the key.”

Mabil was a member of several youth teams in the Adelaide area, eventually joining his local A-League side Adelaide United. After that, he was identified as a player of promise by FC Midtjylland, the Danish side owned by Matthew Benham, one of the pioneers of using data in scouting. Their numbers revealed something in Mabil, so a week after they had contacted his agent in 2015, he was on a plane. “I packed up my two suitcases and went to the other side of the world to chase my dreams,” he says. “I became a man there.”

He became a better player too. “When I came to Europe and came to Denmark, I was very good at one thing. I loved to dribble, one against one. I was really good at that. But I needed to learn to defend. I needed to learn to have an end product.”

He made his senior Australian debut in 2018, as coach Graham Arnold attempted to rebuild the national team following a string of retirements. Mabil established himself with the Socceroos in time for the Asian Cup in 2019, where he scored twice before Australia were knocked out in the quarter-finals.

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But hours after that defeat, he received the devastating news that his sister Bor, 19 years old, who had travelled with the rest of the family from that refugee camp to Adelaide, had died in a car crash.

Mabil isn’t keen to talk about that now. You can’t blame him. First, he’s giving up a piece of his valuable time a few weeks before the biggest tournament of his life, to talk with a journalist in England. It’s to his immense credit he didn’t put the phone down as soon as the subject was broached. But perhaps more pertinently, at some point talking about trauma goes from a method of coping, to simply reliving it.

“I was enjoying the time of my life, playing for my country, scoring for my country at a tournament,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2020. “And all of a sudden, that happened — my best friend who I was talking to every day, suddenly gone like that.

“She was the one that would bring me down to earth when I’m on top in football or when I’m on top of something. She would remind me of my values. And when there was no one to do that, I had to find another way.”

Having experienced enough horror for a few lifetimes, you would forgive Mabil for just getting his head down and playing football, not bothering with anything else. But he embraces his status as a role model — a dual role model, in fact, for young Australian footballers generally, and for refugees everywhere.

He has a foundation, called Barefoot To Boots, and takes boots, football kit and hospital equipment back to Kakuma when he returns to Kenya, which is as often as possible. He wants to set up an academy there. “My dream is for people to know or people to realise, ‘Hey, there’s something in Kakuma, let’s go there’.”

For now though, it’s the World Cup. In the summer he moved to La Liga side Cadiz, and although he’s endured a tough start in Spain (they’re in the relegation zone and Mabil has been in and out of the team), he’s come through worse in his life than a few iffy results.

Awer Mabil

Mabil playing for Cadiz in August (Photo: Juanjo Ubeda/Quality Sport Images via Getty Images)

“I feel really good. I feel very motivated. I’ve been working really, really hard to try to be ready for this, because not every day you can get the chance to go to the World Cup.

“It’s what I’ve been working towards. Like always I will represent my country with with pride, and do whatever to make us win. That’s the only thing we’re there for, to win.”

(Top photo: Albert Perez via Getty Images)


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