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

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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)
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Syria narrowly lost to Australia in the AFC World Cup 2018 playoff last year. (AP)
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Syria narrowly lost to Australia in the AFC World Cup 2018 playoff last year. (AP)
Updated 24 January 2018

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

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.”


Saudi Arabia’s first female racing driver proves childhood dreams can come true

Updated 21 November 2019

Saudi Arabia’s first female racing driver proves childhood dreams can come true

  • Reema Juffali will make history this weekend when she competes in the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY, the support race to the Diriyah E-Prix
  • Reema Juffali: When I got my first car in Boston in the US I would just take it out on drives whenever I needed time to think or I was stressed

RIYADH: From playing with toy cars to becoming a professional racing driver is a dream for many children but one that few achieve.

However, for Reema Juffali of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the fulfilment of that childhood ambition will be especially poignant when she becomes the first woman from the Kingdom to compete in the Kingdom.

It will be yet another watershed moment for Saudi Arabia, as Reema takes to the track this weekend (on November 22 and 23) competing in the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY, the support race to the Diriyah E-Prix at the Diriyah Circuit, part of the epic Diriyah Season, a month-long festival of sport.

And for Reema it will be the latest chapter in a love affair with cars that began as a young child.

She said: “Somewhere in the album there will be pictures of me driving in my dad’s lap or waiting in the car on the driver’s seat making car sounds.

“I was always a very active child, I didn’t do ballet I did karate. I didn’t play with Barbies I liked little model cars so from a very young age. I liked things that weren’t simply classed as feminine. My parents encouraged me to go after what I wanted to do, I played in a football team, I played basketball, I played baseball, I tried all these different sports and I find happiness in sports.

“Cars was something though I was always interested in, I liked reading about them, what new cars were coming out, all the classic cars. It wasn’t until I until I went to college that I started watching and learning about racing. Ever since then it has been a question mark ‘how can I do this?’. 

“When I was my teens the movie Transformers came out and so my friend gave me a nickname of ‘Opty’ after Optimus Prime because she knew how much I liked cars.

“When I got my first car in Boston in the US I would just take it out on drives whenever I needed time to think or I was stressed so I nicknamed my car Opty too. Being behind the wheel is my happy place.”

Reema made history by becoming the first Saudi female race licence holder to compete in the TRD 86 Cup at Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi in October last year, taking second place in the Silver Category and fourth overall. Her previous racing experience also includes the MRF Challenge in India.

That moment came just months after Saudi Arabia announced that women could drive as part of the Kingdom’s evolving social landscape. For Reema it was a pivotal moment.

She said: “I knew the day was going to come when women would be able to drive. If you had asked me when I was 12 I was adamant I was going to get behind the wheel, then I left and moved abroad and got the chance to drive and I thought how great it would be to drive at home.

“For me it wasn’t about the fact that women could drive, it was what driving brings, that freedom and that independence. It was an emotional moment, I had to celebrate with a drive and the first time I saw another women on the roads I waved to her. My sister asked if I knew her and I was like ‘no, I’m just so happy to see another woman driving’.”

Reema made one of her first appearances in the F4 British Championships at Brands Hatch last October. Just last month she was back at UK circuit driving for Double R Racing, the Woking-based team formed in 2004 by 2007 Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen and his race manager, Steve Robertson.

For the 27-year-old though competing in Saudi Arabia, on the Diriyah Circuit in the heart of the UNESECO World Heritage site, will be something special, especially competing in the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY, the support race to the opening double header for the ABB FIA Formula E Championship.

She said: “I am very excited, I never thought this day would come, or at least I didn’t know when and it came a lot sooner than expected. I’m a year into racing and here I am now about to race at home which is an incredible feeling.

“My family are very happy and excited. I told them I was going to be racing in Saudi and its going to be a big thing for me and us and they were like ‘that’s nice’ and then when it was official I sort of dawned on them and there were like ‘oh my, are you ready for this?’ I think I am.

“I came to racing quite late in life, some people start karting at the age of six, they have a path for them, for me my path was go study, then go work and it wasn’t an option for me to drop it all and race. Thankfully I got the opportunity to try this itching passion that I had for cars and just drive on the tracks, and then just give it everything.

“That was last October and it’s been very positive since then. I have a lot of learning to do, it is still the beginning for me, but it’s just been an amazing experience for me. I want to be a better driver and grow, at the end of the day I love it and I want to improve, I am doing it because of that.”

Reema also hopes her debut in the Kingdom will inspire other young men and women to get behind the wheel and consider a career in motorsports.

She said: “With Formula E and the Saudi Dakar Rally it’s amazing to see what is happening with motorsport and the opportunities that are opening up for Saudi drivers, especially girls.

“For me connecting with other women is definitely a plus. Having other people to look up to, especially for me at a younger age, would have been amazing. Now I get the chance to influence and if I can do that for one gender great, if I can for both genders even better and I feel like I am doing that.

“The questions I am getting from a lot of people such as ‘how do you do this, how can I do this?’ are from both men and women. It is a whole new world of motorsports for everybody in Saudi Arabia and they just want to learn and understand how its going to work and how they can be a part of it.