15 June ~ Perched on a grassy verge overlooking Pitch 6 at the Memorial Grounds in East London, a Somaliland TV employee hunched over a laptop, desperately trying to get the live feed to restart. A cameraman and TV reporter trained their eyes on a touchline hugged (and routinely crossed) by 200 raucous fans. A group of women chanted and danced, their hijabs draped over by national flags.
Just under 4,000 miles away in Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland, a huge audience awaited updates from their country's first foray into the African Nations Cup UK, a diaspora community tournament that became an unexpected outlet this summer for a country in search of recognition. Twenty-four years since breaking away from the failed state of Somalia to its south, Somalilanders embrace their identity wherever they can – including on scruffy park pitches. “People back home have loved it,” said Abdi Adan. “To see Somaliland playing against other nations is a huge thing. It means equal status.”
When 19-year-old Abdi Samed turned neatly in the box to give Somaliland the lead over Senegal in the quarter-final on June 6, it looked like their remarkable debut run, which included a win over Nigeria in the group phase, was about to continue. A young team made up of college-age students picked from the across the UK had somehow managed, with the help of their band of supporters, to compete against representative sides of vastly greater experience.
Senegal, whose side included Seydou Ba, formerly of Union Sportive Ouakam in Dakar, eventually overwhelmed the young Somalilanders, turning the game round to win 2-1. It was not without controversy. Their winner flew through a hole in the corner of net, leading to vociferous protests and a pitch invasion ended by two bemused police officers.
Casual passers-by could be forgiven for wondering what was going on. The African Nations Cup UK features a miscellany of amateurs and non-League journeymen bolstered by ex-professionals who have come to the UK after playing at the highest level in Africa's domestic leagues – new migrants and UK-born generations combining in all 22 teams. Each has a story to tell. On the adjacent pitch, Morocco made the semi-finals aided by a player taking an enforced break from his contract with Al Ahly Benghazi in the suspended Libyan league. They beat a talented Burundi, for whom Saido Berahino turned out in 2012.
Ghana, meanwhile, sneaked through on penalties against Ivory Coast in a reversal of the senior teams' fortunes in the Africa Cup of Nations proper. Les Elephants captain Richmond Kissi, a Londoner who plays his football in the Isthmian Division One North, sees the event as a showcase for talent that is too often overlooked. “You can see the quality out there. A lot of players in the community or who come over find it hard to get a chance even in non-League. Hopefully a few scouts have come down.”
Rodrigue Ndiane isn't a player in need of being spotted. After a successful year with Crystal Palace's under-21s in 2014-15, he helped to carry Cameroon into the final played yesterday at the Terrence McMillan Stadium in Newham. A full-back at Selhurst Park, he has a free attacking role with the national side and scored the crucial equaliser as his team took the Cup with a 2-1 win over a resilient Ghana. Amid wild on-pitch celebrations, Ndiane made a good-humoured promise: “Remember me. I'll be playing for the full Cameroon team soon.”