African Refugees Try to Warm Up to Bandy, a Cousin of Hockey


BORLÄNGE, Sweden—Sports fans whose heartstrings were tugged by the Jamaican bobsled team back in the 1980s may have a new underdog to pull for as a group of Somali men living in Sweden look to master the fast-paced and ice-cold game of bandy.

It is a form of larger-scale ice hockey popular in the Nordic countries and Russia that is played by 11-man teams on soccer-size ice fields, usually outdoors. Unlike hockey, bandy isn’t a body-checking contact sport, but skaters move at furiously high speeds and the hard plastic ball used instead of a puck can whiz very fast past a player’s face.

Team Somalia’s coach, Per Fosshaug, a fiery Swedish bandy legend, once held the unofficial bandy record and was able to fire shots at more than 100 miles an hour into the top corners of the bandy goal.

The objectives of the game are the same as in ice hockey; the main differences are the larger surface, more players and a ball instead of a puck.

About two dozen young Somali hopefuls don’t have a lot of time to master the game. Living in central Sweden, the players are hoping to be the first team from Africa to compete in the world championships.

“It’s an amazing thing to get a chance to represent your country,” said Najib Farhan, a 16-year-old Somali.

The 2014 World Bandy Championships are to start in late January in the Eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk, which boasts record low temperatures of 57.5 degrees below zero. Some bandy leagues abide by temperature rules that allow games to be called on account of cold, but in the World Championships, temperatures have to drop to at least 22 below before a postponement is even considered. It helps to dress in layers, with some Gore-Tex to protect players racing about at 30 mph from the wind.

Players on Team Somalia have no illusions about their chances. “We will probably lose by a hundred goals,” said Mr. Farhan, after one of the team’s first practices. “But we will do our best.”

Mr. Fosshaug’s attempt to quickly whip a team into shape is proving that the task isn’t going to be easy. Most of his charges have never skated and some haven’t been in Sweden for more than six months. At their first training in June in Sweden’s picturesque Dalarna region, aspiring players struggled just to stay upright on roller blades, which were being used as training wheels to prepare them for ice skates.

As Mr. Fosshaug gave instructions to pupils about flexibility of limbs and the importance of using the gluteus maximus for leverage, his players were clinging to one another, trying not to fall.

In an impromptu 40-meter race, or about 44 yards, there were lots of flailing arms as beginners tried to maintain their balance. Almost half the field ended up on the ground, some having to crawl to make it past the finish line. As the Somali trainees strained to learn, Swedish children who shared the course were gliding around, completely at ease on their roller blades and bemused by their fellow skaters.

The Somali bandy experiment originated when a business consultant named Patrik Andersson was out drinking with friends one night and talking about the challenge immigrants face in Sweden. Mr. Andersson’s hometown of Borlänge has 40,000 people, and 3,000 of them are from Somalia, most of them refugees who fled war and poverty in their home country. Many of them interact very little with the Swedes. Unemployment is high among the Somalis.

Bandy fan Magnus Ståhl is a proxy for the local bandy fanaticism. He has the sports club badge of Edsbyns IF tattooed on his arm and says the game means “everything” to his village, population 4,000, 75 miles north of Borlänge.

The team has won nine Swedish titles and at the height of its success had average attendance of 2,000 at home games. But it is very uncommon to see immigrants play bandy, Mr. Ståhl said, and audiences are pretty homogeneous, reminiscent of Swedish life in the 1950s, before a half century of immigration diversified the nation of 9.6 million people.

Looking to shake up the sport’s exclusivity, Mr. Andersson’s group took the idea to the Federation of International Bandy, which is eager to bring the game to new nations. It needs broader participation if it is to someday secure a slot for bandy in the Olympics. The federation’s secretary-general Bo Nyman said the idea seemed “a bit too fantastic” when it was first broached to him. But after several meetings, he became convinced it could work. He went to Montenegro in mid-July and got an official green light for the Somali effort at the Federation’s Executive Committee annual meeting.

Bandy evangelists face a challenge, however, given the dominance of soccer here in Sweden.

“I’ve coached a youth team, and I’ve only had one player who was an immigrant,” Mr. Ståhl said. And the player quit to play soccer. “He was good, but that was the first and only time I’ve seen an immigrant play bandy in Edsbyn.”


He has seen some of the sport’s international stragglers, though, and wasn’t impressed. The Netherlands had a training camp in the area and played a game in Edsbyn, but the Dutch players were ill-equipped for the match.

“They didn’t even have a full team. One of my colleagues, who used to play bandy, had to join them as a goalkeeper,” Mr. Ståhl said.

Bandy is merciless. A team with superior skating skills can run roughshod over lesser opponents. The last time the U.S. national bandy team played at the top level of the World Championship, they were beaten 15-0 by Sweden and 19-3 by Russia.

Still, the Somali pioneers in Borlänge are enthusiastic.

Mohammed Ahmed, 17, who was one of a small Somali delegation that traveled to Stockholm earlier this year to watch the national final, was impressed by the atmosphere at the game. One of five Somalis in a crowd of nearly 40,000, the novice spectator found bandy to be a bit hard to follow. It takes a trained eye to be able to follow the small pink ball or anticipate the pace of play.

Hassan Osman, one of the leaders of the local Somali football club who is now learning bandy, said about all he could make out was “a lot of players moving in all different directions.”

Mr. Ahmed, studying at an introduction program for immigrants, said that although the trip to Stockholm was a great experience, “it would have been even cooler if it were a soccer game.”

Mr. Fosshaug, the coach, is approaching this project with a healthy dose of patience. “I don’t have any expectations of them firing a shot into the top corner,” he said. “But there are other top corners to aim for, whether in the labor market, in family life or in the community.”


  1. good for somalia go for the ice. no winning is necessary only getting there is a victory itself . go for the ice brave Somalia