By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Awer Mabil’s soccer-focused charity has put boots on the feet of children at the Kenyan refugee camp where he was raised and now the Denmark-based winger hopes to realise his own playing dreams with a spot in Graham Arnold’s Australia team.
The 22-year-old was named in Arnold’s first squad last week as the new coach looks to regenerate the team with youth after the Socceroos’ group stage exit at the World Cup.
Mabil earned spots on Australia’s youth teams after impressing with his pace and skill for A-League team Adelaide United then headed to Europe in 2015 to further his ambitions, a well-worn path followed by many of his compatriots.
A move to Danish side FC Midtjylland would not prove to be quite the game-changer he may have hoped for.
He battled to break into the first team and ended up being loaned out to league rivals Esbjerg and later to Portuguese strugglers FC Pacos de Ferreira.
Perseverance has ultimately paid off, however, and he scored his first goal for Midtjylland last month in a 3-0 win over Danish rivals Randers just days before Arnold’s squad announcement.
Australia is desperate to find new goal-scorers after the retirement of veteran forward Tim Cahill and Mabil will be among a slew of hopefuls trying to fill the breach ahead of the Socceroos’ Asian Cup defence in the United Arab Emirates.
Mabil said his European travails had forced him to find new dimensions to his game.
“I think in the A-League when I was there I was like a winger, stay wide, one-on-one, dribble, that was the kind of the player I was,” he said from the Socceroos’ training camp in Turkey.
“I slowly started to realise that you need more than just one thing to your game.
“When I just stayed wide defenders in Europe would read me easily so it was about putting in the hours with people at the club, watching videos and trying to see where I could add more to my game.
“I think especially in the last year, I’ve added on that position of being able to play as a number 10 or a winger that comes inside.
“It’s been good to add those things to my game.”
Mabil’s early life was all about adapting to overcome hardship, having spent his childhood among thousands of South Sudan refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
He resettled in Australia with his mother and siblings at the age of 10 but continues to return to the camp as part of his work for the Barefoot to Boots Foundation, a charity he founded with his brother and an Australian businessman.
Conceived to donate soccer balls and kit to the camp’s children, it has expanded to include health and education initiatives for girls and women.
Gaining the added profile of a Socceroos jersey would be a welcome spur for Mabil’s fund-raising efforts.
His ambitions of winning a national jersey were stoked soon after arriving in Australia, when he saw the team competing at the 2006 World Cup in Germany on television.
The team that competed in Russia under departed coach Bert van Marwijk were of a lesser vintage than the ‘golden generation’ that reached the last 16 in Germany.
But Mabil has high hopes for a youth-led revival under Arnold, who has returned to the role after an ill-fated stint in charge from 2006-07.
“He’s talking about the discipline. I’m a really disciplined person,” said Mabil. “Also he’s not afraid to give young players opportunities when they’re ready.
“So we just have to be ready as young players when the chances do come and take it.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by xxxxxxx)