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MLS-bound Gabriel Somi: ‘Football means a lot to the Syrian people’

Gabriel Somi, a Swedish-born defender who was last year called up to the Syrian national team is glad he has decided to join New England Revolution. (AP)
Syria narrowly lost to Australia in the AFC World Cup 2018 playoff last year. (AP)
Syria narrowly lost to Australia in the AFC World Cup 2018 playoff last year. (AP)
LONDON: America’s Major League Soccer might not be the destination of choice for a lot of Syrian footballers, especially after Donald Trump’s ban on Syrians entering the US.
But Gabriel Somi, a Swedish-born defender who was last year called up to the Syrian national team and whose parents were both born in Syria, was not deterred and is glad he has decided to join New England Revolution.
“No, not at all,” he replied when Arab News asked if he was concerned about obtaining a visa and living in the US under Trump’s presidency.
Somi, 26, who is still in Sweden waiting for his visa application to be processed, has lived in the Scandinavian country his entire life after his parents, both Christians living in a majority Muslim country, decided to move to Sweden with their three daughters in 1989 in search of a better life for their children.
Despite growing up in Sweden, his parents made sure Somi, born in the town of Örebro in 1991, never forgot his true heritage.
“My parents raised me in that way, (that) you should never forget where you came from,” Somi said.
“OK, we left Syria, but you have Syrian blood. In my home I always had to speak my language, they tried to tell me to not speak Swedish at home.
“We have a lot of family at home (in Syria) and almost every year we went down on vacation to see them, but unfortunately the last seven or eight years there’s been the war so the situation hasn’t been good.
“But luckily for all of our family members it’s still okay in their areas.”
Having joined top flight club Östersunds FK in 2016, Somi quickly caught the attention of the Syrian national team and after an complicated process, was finally called up for his first camp for last year’s World Cup playoffs against Australia.

“It was a very proud moment in my career to get a call up, especially for the World Cup qualification,” Somi said.
“It was a long process to be honest, it took around eight months to fix everything, (but) my family, my parents and my cousins, everyone was so proud.”
Somi, however, did not make it off the bench and had to watch on as Syria came agonizingly close to a shock upset that would have seen them take on Honduras in a final playoff to make it to the Russian showpiece, a match Somi insisted they would have won.
“Of course (we were disappointed), we know as Syrians how much this would have meant for the whole country,” he revealed.
“To lose in that way, to be seconds from going through, that shot if it goes in I think we would go through to the World Cup, I think we would have beaten Honduras.”
Somi admitted the players took the defeat badly.
“It was a tough moment, everyone was crying in the locker room. It was a tough defeat, but in the end the whole of Syria was really proud at how far we came, and it was a huge achievement for the whole team, even though the country was in war but still to do so well it was something fantastic.”
While he would not be drawn on the politics involved in playing under the flag of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, Somi said the football team was a force for good, a source of pride for Syrians all over the world.
“Even though there is the war the whole country was behind us,” he said.
“To be honest I don’t want to go into too much political stuff, I know the national team brings everyone together. The whole country was behind us.
“I got a picture from a family member in Damascus where there were thousands of people in the city watching and following the qualification. I know it meant a lot to all of the Syrian people all around the world.”

While the hurt from that loss still lingers, Somi’s immediate focus is getting over to the US and joining his new teammates at New England. After spending his whole career in Sweden he is looking forward to the change of scenery and different challenge offered by playing in MLS.
“I’m not 19 years old anymore, so I wanted to take this opportunity,” he explained.
“I’ve been playing in Sweden my whole life so I wanted to take this chance to try a new league and play abroad.
“I had a lot of clubs that were interested. I went to Hearts in Scotland and visited them, it was a fantastic club also, and I had a lot of top teams here in Sweden give me offers all well.
“But my goal was to go outside Sweden, to try something new and then New England came with an offer and I felt that this was the best offer for me.
“It’s financially very good, a great city and it’s an upcoming league, it’s growing a lot.
“(Football) is becoming really big in the US so it’s an offer I couldn’t say no to.”