Awer Mabil helped Australia qualify for the FIFA World Cup this month, signing for top Spanish club Cadiz just this week.
In other words, his childhood dreams have come true.
But in his first sit-down interview since scoring a crucial penalty after extra time in the qualifier against Peru, the Socceroos winger says he is unimpressed by the spotlight.
Instead, he says, he makes sure to stay humble — a lesson he learned during his childhood in a refugee camp.
“Of course it was the basis for me. It gave me many values that I still carry to this day,” he says.
“One of the most important things is humility – to always be humble – that’s what I’ve learned from being in that environment from that age.”
Mabil’s parents fled the civil war in South Sudan in 1994 and the following year he was born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. He spent the first 10 years of his life there and says it taught him valuable life lessons.
He later came to Australia and went on to play for Adelaide United and clubs around the world, including FC Midtjylland in Denmark and Kasımpaşa in Turkey.
But first he learned to play football on the dirt field in the refugee camp Kakuma, barefoot, where he and his friends made footballs out of plastic bags and balloons.
Awer Mabil with members of Adelaide’s South Sudanese community. Source: australiabusinessblog News
“We’ve made balls out of plastic bags, and sometimes our clothes and balloons. If you want to bounce a ball, you tear open clothes, inflate a balloon and tie it,” he says.
“If you just want a normal little ball, you take plastic bags and wrap it around it, burn it a bit so it sticks, and that’s what you use to play.
“Looking at my toes would scare you, mate,” Mabil says with a laugh. “My nails have come off so many times because of the rocks.”
He now says he is “lucky” to play football with football boots and to be “spoiled” with how many balls there are in training.
But about how he doesn’t want to be “pity”, or have his athletic achievements “degraded”, because of his background.
Awer Mabil with his friends and family at their childhood home in Adelaide.
Mabil and his family came to Australia when he was only 10 and he says that integrating into society at that age and not speaking English was difficult at first. He couldn’t talk to local children at school, so he used football as a means of communication, a way that transcends culture or language barriers.
“It was tough in the beginning because we came here and didn’t speak English at all.”
“I like to talk to people, but I couldn’t communicate with anyone, so it was weird and I was an angry kid and short-tempered at first.
“If I wasn’t playing football I wouldn’t listen and I didn’t care who was talking. So football was like a savior to me and it was a way for me to communicate.”
Football was like a savior to me and it was a way for me to communicate.
Awer Mabil, Socceroo
Mabil made his senior debut for Adelaide United in 2013 against Perth Glory.
Ian Smith, who serves on the board of Adelaide United FC and chairs Barefoot to Boots, an NGO that supports refugees in camps and their neighboring host communities, says Mabil has “the courage of a lion”.
“He is an extraordinary young man. He has the courage of a lion and the heart of an angel,” he said.
“When they see a young man accomplish what Awer has done, their dreams come true. It’s a way out, it’s a way forward. You cannot underestimate its importance.”
Mabil has previously tried to make it clear that he is an Australian with an Australian passport, but with the World Cup just around the corner, he also hopes to become the first footballer of South Sudanese descent to play in the tournament – and his friends and family support him at every step.
Awer Mabil with his mother.
Over the weekend, the South Sudanese community of Adelaide embraced him with traditional Dinka dances.
“I’m so happy, I’m so happy to see Mabil in the World Cup with his teammates,” said Mabil’s friend, Deng Mading Maye.
“I’m asking if I can somehow go to Qatar? Take me, I’ll be there!”
Australia’s first game at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be against defending champions France on November 23.
The South Sudanese community of Adelaide – and all of Australia – will be watching.
Ajak Deng Chiengkou is the executive producer of †