- Mabil and Sisto lived in refugee camps as children
- Their families emigrated to Australia and Denmark
- Mabil plays for the Socceroos and Sisto the Danes, with both eying Qatar 2022
‘Out of adversity comes opportunity.’
This famous saying certainly applies to Pione Sisto and Awer Mabil. Hailing from South Sudan, the pair suffered the horrors of a civil war that forced their parents to live in refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda. But after years of adversity, a humanitarian programme helped Mabil and his family to relocate to Australia, and Sisto to settle in Denmark.
Asked about his experience in the refugee camps where it all began, Mabil, who currently plays for Midtjyllands, told the BBC’s World Football show: “We built a hut out of mud, probably the size of one bedroom in a normal house in the Western world, as you would call it. But you know it’s not your home. There were four of us living in it – me, my mum, my brother and sister. We would get food from the UN once a month.”
“Each person would get 1kg of rice, so we had 4kg in our family, and 3kg of beans. It was very difficult. We would have one meal a day, which was dinner. There was no such thing as breakfast or lunch. You just had to survive with the little dinner you had and you really had to appreciate it.”
Mabil started to play football with other children at the refugee camp when he was five. “Playing football was the only thing I could do,” said the Manchester United fanatic, who had difficulties watching games. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved playing football. I followed Manchester United, but there was only one TV that was two hours away by car, and you had to pay $1 to go there. If you couldn’t go, you just had to make sure that one of your friends who went told you the result.”
Mabil has never forgotten his roots and now has his own foundation, Barefoot to Boots, and regularly visits Kakuma: “I take boots, football equipment and hospital equipment and donate them to the refugees there. If I have two weeks’ holiday, I’ll spend one week there and a week with my family.”
Sisto, difficult childhood and survival
Due to the prolonged civil war (1985-2005), Pione Sisto’s parents fled with their two children to Uganda in 1994. A few months later, Pione was born and then the whole family embarked on a long journey to northern Europe, seeking a better future for their children.
Asked about their experience, Pione’s brother Angelo said: “Back in South Sudan, our parents lived on a small farm, but when they fled to Denmark the change was immense. In South Sudan and Uganda, you feel you’re alone. That’s why our parents always protect us and guide us to do better.”
In 2002, Sisto started out in youth football as a seven-year-old with Tjorring before switching to Midtjylland, where he eventually broke into the senior team and went on to play in the UEFA Europa League. He then signed for Spanish side Celta Vigo, where he had a four-year stint before returning to Midtjylland.
Eyes on Qatar 2022
Having acquired Danish citizenship and represented Denmark regularly since 2015, Sisto is now looking forward to participating in the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. And after the sadness and trauma of his early life, what better way to complete his story that with an appearance at football’s flagship event?
Mabil has similar goals. After accruing professional experience with several Australian teams and subsequently Midtjylland, he received a call-up to the Australian national team months after Russia 2018. He is now looking forward to playing in the Qatar 2022 qualifiers and dreaming of a World Cup appearance. Were that to happen, his journey would be one of the most remarkable in footballing history, given the obstacles he had to surmount to become a successful player.
Asked about playing for Australia, Mabil said: “I represent Australia because it’s given me and my family a second chance in life. It’s part of me because I’ve lived half of my life there. I call it home, so I’m proud to represent it.”