Take a soccer field, fill it with water, let it freeze and then spend 90 minutes skating on it. Add in a shortened, field hockey-like stick and a small pink or orange ball and you have bandy. A prototypically Nordic sport, bandy requires strength, finesse and stamina. The two 11-player teams skate an average of six to eight miles in a match. The rink is outdoors where the elements are often as important as the players’ skills.
Sweden, Finland and Russia have long been the bandy banner carriers, with the Swedes leading a losing effort to have bandy included in the Winter Olympics. Although not as popular as hockey or football, bandy holds a special place for Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Danes (and yes, even the Russians) who view it as their sport.
That, however, could be changing. At the recently concluded Bandy World Championship for second-tier teams, a new face emerged as a contender — or at least participant: Somalia. No, it’s not a misprint. Somalia.

'A lot like football'
The Somali National Bandy team owes its existence largely to the liberal immigration and refugee policy of Sweden. Every player but one now lives in Sweden and plays for Borlänge Bandy. How they made the transition from the hot sands of Somalia to the frozen rinks of Borlänge has become something of an international feel-good sports story.
“Bandy is a lot like football, except you are skating,” said Somali team captain Ahmed Ahmed. “Of course you have the short stick and you are shooting a small pink ball and if you score one goal it is just one point, just like football.”
Many of the Somali players never saw ice or snow until they left their war-torn homeland and fled to Sweden. Upon arrival, they faced the same sort of problems all immigrants face as they tried to learn a new culture, language and most of all, adjust to the climate. Although football — or soccer — is the top sport in their country, a small group of Somalis wanted to learn more about winter sports. Hockey was a bit too fast and physical, but bandy ... bandy fit the bill.
“Until I was 20 years old I did not know what snow was,” said Ahmed. “And ice, I just knew ice came in a cold drink that I could only afford once in a while. I came here [to Sweden] five years ago and now I am representing my country. To wear my country’s colors, my country’s shirt, it is a great thing for me.”

Lots of space and fast
Ahmed said his teammates understand the game because of its similarities to soccer.
“It is like hockey because we are skating but it is also like football because we are on a football pitch so there is a lot room and it is very fast,” said Ahmed. “You cannot just stand there. You always have to move even when you don’t have the ball. I really like it.”
The idea for an all-Somali team was the brainchild of Patrik Andersson, a former professional bandy player who lives in Borlänge.
“If we are going to live in Borlänge together we have to talk to each other to create a good place to live in, so I came up with this idea because I wanted us to do something together that seems to be impossible. If we do it together it can be possible and we can make a big change in Borlänge.”
Ahmed said bandy was the perfect vehicle for the local Swedish population to get to know the newcomers and for the newcomers to show they wanted to fit in, and credited Andersson with helping to create a bridge between the two communities.
“He came up with this idea, a perfect idea, for the Somalian people,” Ahmed said. “It made us easy for people to get to know. We are impressed with him, we are proud of him.”

Somalia Bandy Federation, Borlänge
Andersson, who is the secretary general of the Somalia Bandy Federation (also based in Borlänge), turned to former teammate Per Fosshaug to turn the refugee footballers into bandy players. Fosshaug started with the basics of simply learning to skate, a skill many of his players are still trying to master. Fosshaug said he has no worries about the learning curve due the psychological make-up of his players.
“What they experience in their home country and everything — they have courage,” Fosshaug said. “They have been a part of things we don’t ever want to dream about. So going on ice, going on skates, it was nothing for them.”
Fosshaug’s easy style and teacher-student approach to bandy made him instantly popular with his players.
“He is ‘Uncle Pelle,’” said Ahmed with a broad grin and a laugh. “He is the best, the best coach we can have, ever. He always says to us don’t worry about the result. Just focus on how we are playing, how we are training. He is an amazing man.”
Somalia competed at the bandy world tournament in Irkutsk, Siberia. Although the Borlänge-based team did not win a game, Ahmed said his team proved anything was possible.
“Of all the countries in Africa, we are the only one who plays Bandy,” said Ahmed. “I am very proud of that.
By Chipp Reid