Insight

Reach out and touch faith

Few plotlines in football are as compelling as the fairy-tale triumph. Yet Awer Mabil’s remarkable journey from refugee camp to Champions League, fuelled by talent, determination and hope, belongs in a category of its own

WORDS Kenneth Hansen | PORTRAIT Jan Kruger

Awer Mabil’s childhood was spent crammed inside a small mud hut with his mother, brother and sister. Crammed inside Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp with thousands upon thousands of others who had fled the Sudanese civil war. Confined to one small meal a day; ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’ were nothing but empty words. Yet, somewhere in among all of that, one word was still filled with promise: football.

The Champions League had the allure of a far-off objective requiring a huge investment of time and effort. And that was just to watch games on TV. He would have to walk two hours, before school, to get a glimpse of a single screen along with hundreds of others – and pay for the privilege. This season, residents gathered to marvel at Mabil in action.

“Football saved my life,” says the Midtjylland winger, 25. The camp was his birthplace and then his home for the next 11 years; playing the game began as a coping mechanism. “There was nothing else to do because your environment is so full of things that, as a kid, you should not see. If you don’t do anything, you’re thinking about it and it will traumatise you.”

Mabil’s first brushes with the game were a far cry from Midtjylland’s recent floodlit Champions League nights against Liverpool, Atalanta and Ajax. And although he did not get to play traditionally structured matches until his family were resettled in Australia in 2006, he cherishes those early experiences. “We used to make balls out of plastic bags and then you’d have hundreds of kids playing together. Every time I got the ball I had to dribble and be as quick as I could, because it would be a long time before I got it back. Those are fun memories – and it also made me the player I am now, because I learned how to adapt.”

Six years after arriving in Australia, Mabil was playing in the domestic A-League for Adelaide United; three years after that he was snapped up by Midtjylland. Danish champions last season, the ambitious club won plenty of admirers during their Champions League group-stage debut this term, which ended with 1-1 draws against both Atalanta and Liverpool.

Awer Mabil made his Champions League debut this season

Awer Mabil’s childhood was spent crammed inside a small mud hut with his mother, brother and sister. Crammed inside Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp with thousands upon thousands of others who had fled the Sudanese civil war. Confined to one small meal a day; ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’ were nothing but empty words. Yet, somewhere in among all of that, one word was still filled with promise: football.

The Champions League had the allure of a far-off objective requiring a huge investment of time and effort. And that was just to watch games on TV. He would have to walk two hours, before school, to get a glimpse of a single screen along with hundreds of others – and pay for the privilege. This season, residents gathered to marvel at Mabil in action.

“Football saved my life,” says the Midtjylland winger, 25. The camp was his birthplace and then his home for the next 11 years; playing the game began as a coping mechanism. “There was nothing else to do because your environment is so full of things that, as a kid, you should not see. If you don’t do anything, you’re thinking about it and it will traumatise you.”

Mabil’s first brushes with the game were a far cry from Midtjylland’s recent floodlit Champions League nights against Liverpool, Atalanta and Ajax. And although he did not get to play traditionally structured matches until his family were resettled in Australia in 2006, he cherishes those early experiences. “We used to make balls out of plastic bags and then you’d have hundreds of kids playing together. Every time I got the ball I had to dribble and be as quick as I could, because it would be a long time before I got it back. Those are fun memories – and it also made me the player I am now, because I learned how to adapt.”

Six years after arriving in Australia, Mabil was playing in the domestic A-League for Adelaide United; three years after that he was snapped up by Midtjylland. Danish champions last season, the ambitious club won plenty of admirers during their Champions League group-stage debut this term, which ended with 1-1 draws against both Atalanta and Liverpool.

Awer Mabil made his Champions League debut this season
Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!

“The biggest thing we’ve taken from the Champions League is that if you make a mistake, teams will punish you,” says Mabil, no stranger to punishing defences himself. Having pounced against Young Boys during the qualifiers, he scored only the second goal in Midtjylland’s Champions League history in a 3-1 loss at Ajax on Matchday 4. It was a special moment for a player who feels a heavy weight of responsibility.

“I train hard because I know the kids in the camp would do anything to be in my shoes,” he says, the population of the Kakuma camp having risen from around 8,000 in 1990 to about 200,000 today. “I know I’m representing those kids, telling them it’s possible to achieve your dreams. When I was young I never thought I would play in the Champions League but I work hard and just remain myself.”

He offers those children much more than his example: in 2014 he set up the Barefoot to Boots foundation with his brother as a way of providing football equipment for Kakuma refugees. The organisation has grown significantly, serving more and more camps while providing education and healthcare thanks to support from various global institutions. “When I became a professional footballer I tried to find time to visit Kakuma a few times each year with a suitcase of clothes from my club. I realised the kids were playing barefoot so instead of uniforms, I asked my team-mates to collect all their boots. That was a way for me to give back.”

That dedication earned Mabil the FIFPro Merit Award in 2018. But the Australian international hasn’t lost sight of his on-pitch goals, with retaining the Danish title and returning to the Champions League top of the list. “Playing in these games is something I would never have imagined. That’s why I’m thankful for football – what it’s given to me and the way it allows me to inspire the next generation.”

Awer Mabil’s childhood was spent crammed inside a small mud hut with his mother, brother and sister. Crammed inside Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp with thousands upon thousands of others who had fled the Sudanese civil war. Confined to one small meal a day; ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’ were nothing but empty words. Yet, somewhere in among all of that, one word was still filled with promise: football.

The Champions League had the allure of a far-off objective requiring a huge investment of time and effort. And that was just to watch games on TV. He would have to walk two hours, before school, to get a glimpse of a single screen along with hundreds of others – and pay for the privilege. This season, residents gathered to marvel at Mabil in action.

“Football saved my life,” says the Midtjylland winger, 25. The camp was his birthplace and then his home for the next 11 years; playing the game began as a coping mechanism. “There was nothing else to do because your environment is so full of things that, as a kid, you should not see. If you don’t do anything, you’re thinking about it and it will traumatise you.”

Mabil’s first brushes with the game were a far cry from Midtjylland’s recent floodlit Champions League nights against Liverpool, Atalanta and Ajax. And although he did not get to play traditionally structured matches until his family were resettled in Australia in 2006, he cherishes those early experiences. “We used to make balls out of plastic bags and then you’d have hundreds of kids playing together. Every time I got the ball I had to dribble and be as quick as I could, because it would be a long time before I got it back. Those are fun memories – and it also made me the player I am now, because I learned how to adapt.”

Six years after arriving in Australia, Mabil was playing in the domestic A-League for Adelaide United; three years after that he was snapped up by Midtjylland. Danish champions last season, the ambitious club won plenty of admirers during their Champions League group-stage debut this term, which ended with 1-1 draws against both Atalanta and Liverpool.

Awer Mabil made his Champions League debut this season
Reach out and touch faith
Insight

Reach out and touch faith

Few plotlines in football are as compelling as the fairy-tale triumph. Yet Awer Mabil’s remarkable journey from refugee camp to Champions League, fuelled by talent, determination and hope, belongs in a category of its own

WORDS Kenneth Hansen | PORTRAIT Jan Kruger

Awer Mabil’s childhood was spent crammed inside a small mud hut with his mother, brother and sister. Crammed inside Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp with thousands upon thousands of others who had fled the Sudanese civil war. Confined to one small meal a day; ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’ were nothing but empty words. Yet, somewhere in among all of that, one word was still filled with promise: football.

The Champions League had the allure of a far-off objective requiring a huge investment of time and effort. And that was just to watch games on TV. He would have to walk two hours, before school, to get a glimpse of a single screen along with hundreds of others – and pay for the privilege. This season, residents gathered to marvel at Mabil in action.

“Football saved my life,” says the Midtjylland winger, 25. The camp was his birthplace and then his home for the next 11 years; playing the game began as a coping mechanism. “There was nothing else to do because your environment is so full of things that, as a kid, you should not see. If you don’t do anything, you’re thinking about it and it will traumatise you.”

Mabil’s first brushes with the game were a far cry from Midtjylland’s recent floodlit Champions League nights against Liverpool, Atalanta and Ajax. And although he did not get to play traditionally structured matches until his family were resettled in Australia in 2006, he cherishes those early experiences. “We used to make balls out of plastic bags and then you’d have hundreds of kids playing together. Every time I got the ball I had to dribble and be as quick as I could, because it would be a long time before I got it back. Those are fun memories – and it also made me the player I am now, because I learned how to adapt.”

Six years after arriving in Australia, Mabil was playing in the domestic A-League for Adelaide United; three years after that he was snapped up by Midtjylland. Danish champions last season, the ambitious club won plenty of admirers during their Champions League group-stage debut this term, which ended with 1-1 draws against both Atalanta and Liverpool.

Awer Mabil made his Champions League debut this season
Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

Awer Mabil’s childhood was spent crammed inside a small mud hut with his mother, brother and sister. Crammed inside Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp with thousands upon thousands of others who had fled the Sudanese civil war. Confined to one small meal a day; ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’ were nothing but empty words. Yet, somewhere in among all of that, one word was still filled with promise: football.

The Champions League had the allure of a far-off objective requiring a huge investment of time and effort. And that was just to watch games on TV. He would have to walk two hours, before school, to get a glimpse of a single screen along with hundreds of others – and pay for the privilege. This season, residents gathered to marvel at Mabil in action.

“Football saved my life,” says the Midtjylland winger, 25. The camp was his birthplace and then his home for the next 11 years; playing the game began as a coping mechanism. “There was nothing else to do because your environment is so full of things that, as a kid, you should not see. If you don’t do anything, you’re thinking about it and it will traumatise you.”

Mabil’s first brushes with the game were a far cry from Midtjylland’s recent floodlit Champions League nights against Liverpool, Atalanta and Ajax. And although he did not get to play traditionally structured matches until his family were resettled in Australia in 2006, he cherishes those early experiences. “We used to make balls out of plastic bags and then you’d have hundreds of kids playing together. Every time I got the ball I had to dribble and be as quick as I could, because it would be a long time before I got it back. Those are fun memories – and it also made me the player I am now, because I learned how to adapt.”

Six years after arriving in Australia, Mabil was playing in the domestic A-League for Adelaide United; three years after that he was snapped up by Midtjylland. Danish champions last season, the ambitious club won plenty of admirers during their Champions League group-stage debut this term, which ended with 1-1 draws against both Atalanta and Liverpool.

Awer Mabil made his Champions League debut this season
Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!

“The biggest thing we’ve taken from the Champions League is that if you make a mistake, teams will punish you,” says Mabil, no stranger to punishing defences himself. Having pounced against Young Boys during the qualifiers, he scored only the second goal in Midtjylland’s Champions League history in a 3-1 loss at Ajax on Matchday 4. It was a special moment for a player who feels a heavy weight of responsibility.

“I train hard because I know the kids in the camp would do anything to be in my shoes,” he says, the population of the Kakuma camp having risen from around 8,000 in 1990 to about 200,000 today. “I know I’m representing those kids, telling them it’s possible to achieve your dreams. When I was young I never thought I would play in the Champions League but I work hard and just remain myself.”

He offers those children much more than his example: in 2014 he set up the Barefoot to Boots foundation with his brother as a way of providing football equipment for Kakuma refugees. The organisation has grown significantly, serving more and more camps while providing education and healthcare thanks to support from various global institutions. “When I became a professional footballer I tried to find time to visit Kakuma a few times each year with a suitcase of clothes from my club. I realised the kids were playing barefoot so instead of uniforms, I asked my team-mates to collect all their boots. That was a way for me to give back.”

That dedication earned Mabil the FIFPro Merit Award in 2018. But the Australian international hasn’t lost sight of his on-pitch goals, with retaining the Danish title and returning to the Champions League top of the list. “Playing in these games is something I would never have imagined. That’s why I’m thankful for football – what it’s given to me and the way it allows me to inspire the next generation.”

Awer Mabil’s childhood was spent crammed inside a small mud hut with his mother, brother and sister. Crammed inside Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp with thousands upon thousands of others who had fled the Sudanese civil war. Confined to one small meal a day; ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’ were nothing but empty words. Yet, somewhere in among all of that, one word was still filled with promise: football.

The Champions League had the allure of a far-off objective requiring a huge investment of time and effort. And that was just to watch games on TV. He would have to walk two hours, before school, to get a glimpse of a single screen along with hundreds of others – and pay for the privilege. This season, residents gathered to marvel at Mabil in action.

“Football saved my life,” says the Midtjylland winger, 25. The camp was his birthplace and then his home for the next 11 years; playing the game began as a coping mechanism. “There was nothing else to do because your environment is so full of things that, as a kid, you should not see. If you don’t do anything, you’re thinking about it and it will traumatise you.”

Mabil’s first brushes with the game were a far cry from Midtjylland’s recent floodlit Champions League nights against Liverpool, Atalanta and Ajax. And although he did not get to play traditionally structured matches until his family were resettled in Australia in 2006, he cherishes those early experiences. “We used to make balls out of plastic bags and then you’d have hundreds of kids playing together. Every time I got the ball I had to dribble and be as quick as I could, because it would be a long time before I got it back. Those are fun memories – and it also made me the player I am now, because I learned how to adapt.”

Six years after arriving in Australia, Mabil was playing in the domestic A-League for Adelaide United; three years after that he was snapped up by Midtjylland. Danish champions last season, the ambitious club won plenty of admirers during their Champions League group-stage debut this term, which ended with 1-1 draws against both Atalanta and Liverpool.

Awer Mabil made his Champions League debut this season
Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

To access this article, as well as all CJ+ content and competitions, you will need a subscription to Champions Journal.
Already a subscriber? Sign in
close
Special Offers
christmas offer
Christmas CHEER
Up to 40% off
Start shopping
50% off
game night flash sale!!!
Don't miss out
00
Hours
:
00
minutes
:
00
Seconds
Valid on selected products only. subscriptions not included
close