On Thursday night, Awer Mabil travels to the Bernabeu as part of the Cadiz squad to take on reigning Spanish and European champions Real Madrid.
After that, the 27-year-old will fly to Qatar to participate in the World Cup with Australia.
For any player, this would be an extremely exciting time. But for Mabil, who spent the first 10 years of her life in a refugee camp, it marks the culmination of a remarkable personal journey.
Mabil’s parents are South Sudanese, and in 1994 they fled the war-torn former British colony to settle in Kakuma, a United Nations-run refugee camp in Kenya. Awer was born a year later and spent much of his childhood playing football the only way possible – barefoot on clay courts with a “ball” made of crumpled plastic bags.
The family was able to move back to Adelaide, Australia when Awer was 10, and he soon found that continuing to follow his childhood passion for football – now playing with proper equipment – was a great way to overcome the communication difficulties he had initially encountered when learning English.
His progress has been spectacular. After playing for a series of local youth teams as a goalscoring winger, he joined local semi-professional side Campbelltown City, making his debut aged 16, and a string of impressive performances. quickly snapped him up by elite Adelaide United. .
Mabil continued to shine in the A-League, showing great pace and skill on the wing, as well as excellent crossing ability and an eye for goal who scored seven goals in 24 appearances during the 2014-15 season when he was still a teenager. .
Foreign scouts became aware of his talents and in June 2015 he joined Danish club Midtjylland, where he initially struggled to gain playing time and was loaned out to Esbjerg – also in Denmark – and Portuguese team Pacos de Ferreira.
His breakthrough year came in 2018, with Mabil returning to Midtjylland to become a regular starter and his first call-up for Australia’s senior international team, scoring on his debut against Kuwait.
He remained a key player for club and country, appearing in the Champions League after helping Midtjylland win the Danish Cup in 2019 and then the league title in 2020, with Mabil contributing eight goals and six assists.
His efforts on the ground set an inspiring example for those who hoped to follow in his footsteps, and Mabil also found the time to make a practical difference in the lives of his fellow refugees by co-founding – alongside his brother Bul – the charity Barefoot to Boots. .
The organization operates in the Kakuma camp which was once its home, providing opportunities for education, health care and gender equality as well as its main focus on football, and has earned Mabil recognition for his professional colleagues with the FIFPro Merit Award in 2018.
The association is chaired by Ian Smith, a member of the board of his former club Adelaide United, who expressed his deep admiration for the winger when he was interviewed by Australian television channel SBS about the impact that he had on the inhabitants of the refugee camp.
“When they see a young man doing what Awer did, it turns their dreams into reality,” Smith said. “It’s a way out, it’s a way forward. You can’t underestimate his importance. He’s an amazing young man. He has the courage of a lion and the heart of an angel.”
Mabil showed that courage to memorable effect in June, when Australia faced Peru in an Intercontinental Qualifying Final with a place in Qatar on the line.
A tense, scoreless game ended in penalty shootouts, which ended in sudden death after one miss apiece. Mabil volunteered to be Australia’s first extra taker and coolly netted his effort home; when Alex Valera’s subsequent attempt for Peru was saved by Andrew Redmayne, the Socceroos were heading to the World Cup.
A few weeks later, Mabil’s career took a huge step forward when he signed a four-year deal with Cadiz, who were rebuilding their side after escaping relegation from La Liga on the final day of the season.
His first months in La Liga were not easy. Mabil gained decent playing time in the opening weeks of the season, but Cadiz lost their first five games and he fell behind fellow new signings Brian Ocampo and Theo Bongonda in the pecking order. And now, with results on the rise, he has only appeared on the bench once since September.
So there’s every chance that Mabil won’t see any playing time at the Bernabeu on Thursday – but the flip side is that he’ll be fresh and fit to represent his adopted country with pride in Qatar, adding another chapter memorable to his heart. story.