PORTLAND (AP) – Their team lacks facilities, equipment, transportation and funds. They practice maybe once a week, because most work to send money back to Somalia to relatives.

Yet a soccer team of Somali boys and young men from Portland and Lewiston – known as the Maine Atlantic Stars – has persevered, and on Aug. 2 won a championship game against a Boston Somali team.

The Somalis hope the championship can help them become more of a part of Maine’s landscape.

“The championship was not only for the Somali people in Maine, but for all the people,” said player Hassanwali Warsame, a senior at Portland High School.

The team was put together by Aweis Abdalla, a Somali native who moved to Portland five years ago, in an effort to keep Maine’s growing Somali immigrant population occupied and out of trouble. There are around 3,500 Somali immigrants in Portland and 1,800 in Lewiston.

Soccer, a national sport in Somalia, was the natural answer, and it is providing young Somali men with hope and purpose.

Abdalla brought the team together because he feared Somali boys, many of whom he saw on the street late at night, would turn to drugs, alcohol or worse. Soccer, he figured, would get them off the streets, get them home at a reasonable hour and give them personal pride.

“I saw the boys,” said Abdalla. “And I said let’s bring them together rather than having them walking around and maybe doing something wrong.”

Things started out rough. There was no money to start a league. Then the invitation came from Boston: Play against other Somali teams for free. Just get here.

It was a perfect situation, except that the team had no money to pay for uniforms or transportation.

Last year the team played in white T-shirts. This year the Portland Housing Authority provided 17 blue jerseys, and the community group Portland West provided vans when possible.

Still, even with the vans and jerseys this year it was difficult. Conflicting schedules kept them from practicing much. And traveling to Boston was not easy.

But, said Abdiladif Sheikh, a 25-year-old player from Lewiston, the players used that as motivation.

“We know the weaknesses that we have,” he said. “No training, stuff like that. That gives us the motivation that, if we had training, we could do better.”

One week after the Aug. 2 championship game, the team played an all-star team from Boston in what was billed as The Friendship Game at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland. The game ended in a 3-3 tie. Later, the Somali community held a party for both teams.

Now, the community wants to set up a permanent league in Maine. They want their younger players to join local travel teams. They want to form a basketball team. They hope to hire a professional coach – Abdalla has decided to retire.

In Boston, the team was simply known as the Maine team. “No one can say we were the Somali Maine team,” said Abdalla. “Even when they give the championship, they say, ‘This is the champion, one Maine team.’ We represent Maine, we don’t represent Somalia.”

Things changed for the team after the Boston championship game, Abdalla said. “Everyone was calling, ‘Maine, Maine,’ when we go there. That is why this is something very big for us because we are Maine people and we need to defend the name of Maine,” he said.

Somali elders have formed a five-man committee to help create more teams. They plan to send the team to a tournament in Virginia over Labor Day.


AP-ES-08-17-03 1100EDT

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