Awer Mabil this month helped Australia qualify for the FIFA World Cup and only this week signed for Spanish Premier League club Cadiz.
In other words, his childhood dreams have come true.
But in his first interview since scoring a crucial extra-time penalty in the qualifier against Peru, the Socceroos winger said he was not fazed by the spotlight.
Instead, he says, he makes sure to stay humble – a lesson he learned growing up in a refugee camp.
“Obviously that was the base for me. It gave me a lot of values that I still carry today,” he says.
“One of the main things is humility – always being humble – that’s what I learned from being in that environment at that age.”
Mabil’s parents fled civil war in South Sudan in 1994 and he was born in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya the following year. He spent the first 10 years of his life there and says it taught him valuable life lessons.
He then came to Australia and played for Adelaide United and clubs around the world, including FC Midtjylland in Denmark and Kasımpaşa in Turkey.
But he first learned to play soccer on the barefoot clay court of Kakuma refugee camp, where he and his friends made soccer balls out of plastic bags and balls.
Awer Mabil with members of the South Sudanese community in Adelaide. Source: SBS News
“We’ve made balls out of plastic bags, and sometimes out of our clothes and balloons. If you want to bounce a ball, you rip some clothes, inflate a balloon, and tie it up,” he says.
“If you just want a normal little ball, you get some plastic bags and roll them up, burn them a bit so they stick, and that’s what you use to play.
“If you look at my toes, you’d be scared, man,” Mabil laughs. “My nails have come off so many times from the rocks.”
He now says he is ‘lucky’ to play football in boots and to be ‘spoiled’ with how many balls there are in practice.
But about not wanting “pity”, or having his sporting achievements “downgraded”, due to his past.
Awer Mabil with his friends and family at their family home in Adelaide.
Mabil and his family came to Australia when he was just 10 and he says integrating into society at that age and not speaking English was difficult at first. He couldn’t speak with the neighborhood children at school, so he used football as a means of communication, a means that transcended cultural or language barriers.
“It was difficult at first because we came here and didn’t speak English at all.”
“I like talking to people but I couldn’t communicate with anyone so it was weird and I was an angry kid at first and quick-tempered.
“If I wasn’t playing football, I wasn’t listening and I didn’t care who was talking. So football was like a savior for me and it was a way to communicate.
Football was like a savior for me and it was a way to communicate.
Awer Mabil, Socceroo
Mabil made his senior debut for Adelaide United in 2013 against Perth Glory.
Ian Smith, who sits on the board of Adelaide United FC and chairs Barefoot to Boots, an NGO that supports refugees living in camps and their neighboring host communities, says Mabil has the “courage of a lion “.
“He’s an amazing young man. He has the courage of a lion and the heart of an angel,” he said.
“When they see a young man achieve what Awer did, it turns their dreams into reality. It’s a way out, it’s a way forward. You can’t underestimate its importance.
Mabil has already tried to make it clear he’s an Australian with an Australian passport, but with the World Cup approaching he’s also hoping to be the first South Sudanese-born footballer to take part in the tournament – and his friends and family support him every step of the way.
Awer Mabil with his mother.
Last weekend, the South Sudanese community in Adelaide welcomed him with traditional Dinka dances.
“I’m so happy, I’m so happy to see Mabil in the World Cup with his teammates,” said Mabil’s friend Deng Mading Maye.
“I ask if there is a way to go to Qatar? Take me, I will be there!
Australia’s first game at the Qatar 2022 World Cup will come against defending champions France on November 23.
The South Sudanese community in Adelaide – and the whole of Australia – will be watching.
Ajak Deng Chiengkou is the executive producer of .