The road to the 2026 FIFA World Cup for African nations began this past week and the opening round of games wasn’t short of exciting fixtures. For the first time ever, all 54 countries in Africa are set to participate in enlarged groups which presents a unique opportunity for the lower-ranked nations in the continent the match up against Africa’s elite.
Round one of games offered exactly that, the lowest ranked teams in Africa taking on the giants and exactly what you’d expect transpired. Seychelles faced Ivory Coast, losing 9-0. Djibouti played against Egypt in Cairo, resulting in a 6-0 loss. Sao Tome and Principe faced Tunisia, losing 4-0. However, one game stood out. The country ranked last in Africa, Somalia, took on an Algeria side ranked 163 places above them in the FIFA world rankings and came out of that game filled with pride despite the loss.
After conceding an own goal within the first 90 seconds of the game, Somalia’s worst fear seemed imminent. They could face humiliation. However, that was far from the case. The Ocean Stars refused to surrender. As the game progressed, confidence grew. The Somali players started to get into the game and create some chances of their own.
No one could really believe what they were witnessing. The lowest-ranked team in Africa, in Algiers, challenging Mahrez and co, how could this be? But coach Rachid Lousteque had his team organised and they threatened Algeria’s goal on multiple occasions, particularly when they hit the crossbar following a beautiful cross from right-back Abdirizak Mohamed who plays his trade for Columbus Crew in the MLS. He and left back Saadiq Elmi were amongst Somalia’s standout performers, the latter keeping Riyad Mahrez quiet for the most part.
Players like Mohamed are the reason for Somalia’s arrival onto the African football scene, recruitment from abroad has significantly improved the quality of the squad overall. That mixture of players within Somalia and abroad has allowed the Ocean Stars to compete on multiple fronts, across various age groups.
The turning point for Somalia was the World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe in 2019. Before then, Somalia were used to going into games and being the whipping boys, just being there for the sake of it. But that all changed in 2019 when Somalia won the first leg of that tie and were minutes away from advancing in the second leg. That was the first time that Somalia heavily recruited from outside the country, and it worked, they looked good, and they competed. Suddenly, Somali fans began to expect. For the first time in almost 40 years, this passionate nation had a team of its own that they could support and be proud of.
The game against Algeria ended 3-1 for the home team, but for some parts of that second half, it looked like Somalia could push for the equaliser. However, a towering header by Islam Slimani from a corner practically secured the game. This game will serve as a massive learning experience for the Ocean Stars, it will also fill them with confidence and show them that they do belong.
Next up Somalia takes on Uganda in a clash of East African nations, and it presents an entirely different challenge. Although they may not have as much quality as Algeria, they are a very physical team that relies on set pieces and getting the ball into the box as often and as quickly as possible. Uganda is an established team in African football and have the experience to get results. But Somalia will fancy their chances following a strong opening performance against the group favourites. The Ocean Stars have a few exciting attacking players that can cause problems and they will be called upon to help Somalia pick up their first-ever points in qualifiers.
Somalia still has a long way to go, but if the game against Algeria, tells you anything, it is that this team has an incredible foundation to build on and a solid core of players that can help propel them to places that were a mere fantasy a few years ago. This performance might encourage more talented Somali players from around the world to join the national team.
By: Mohamed Salad / @MohamedASalad
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / @SomaliAthlete