The family of Awer Mabil has known both heartbreak and exquisite elation, and the events of early Tuesday morning (Australian time) emphatically fall into the latter category.
With the score of the Socceroos’ penalty shootout against Peru locked at four-all, Mabil stepped up to take his kick.
For a 26-year-old whose childhood ambition had been to play on the biggest stage, the stakes could hardly have been higher — win the shootout and advance to the World Cup finals, or lose it and languish for another four years.
“He had a dream that one day … he would play at a World Cup and he would represent Australia,” Mabil’s uncle Peter Kuereng told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Sonya Feldhoff.
Mabil’s penalty kick was a drama within a drama. Amid cheers and jeers, he walked slowly to the penalty box, placing the ball on the spot and then adjusting it.
In the moments that followed, any signs of nerves dissipated. Cooly and casually, and off a short run, Mabil approached the ball and then dispatched it past Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who had dived the other way.
It was the game’s penultimate kick, giving the Socceroos an edge that they would capitalise on moments later, when Andrew Redmayne produced a Mark Schwarzer-esque save to complete Australia’s quest for a berth in Qatar.
For Mabil, national glory spelled personal fulfilment — qualification was the realisation of that youthful ambition to reach the peak of the round ball game.
His uncle expressed the same sentiment, but more laconically, with the understatement typical of someone whose pride is tempered by modesty.
“That dream is now achieved,” Mr Kuereng said.
From socks to Socceroo
World Cups tend to encourage talk of destiny, rather than contingency — of how things might otherwise have been.
Furthermore, football produces so many stories of triumph in the face of adversity that the exceptional challenges confronted by Mabil — which include personal tragedy — can be obscured by his success in the game he loves.
“As a young boy he grew up in the refugee camp and that’s where he started dreaming of playing soccer and playing [in] a bigger tournament,” Mr Kuereng said.
The refugee camp in question was at Kakuma in Kenya. Established in the early 1990s, it provided basic shelter to hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children whose parents had been forced to flee from countries including what is now South Sudan.
Mabil was born in Kakuma, which is about as removed from the playing fields of an elite college as one could possibly imagine. But as an incubator for sporting and other talent, it puts many more renowned institutions to shame. Among its ‘alumni’ are AFL player Aliir Aliir and model Adut Akech.
It was within the confines of the Kakuma camp that Mabil played soccer with other refugees.
Their chosen ball was a rolled-up sock — which, ironically, they kicked with bare feet — although they sometimes had enough plastic bags to fashion a sphere.
“They rolled them and they became hard, and that’s what they used as a football,” Mr Kuereng said.
In 2006, with the help of his uncle, Mabil and his family secured passage to Australia and settled in Adelaide.
His sporting prowess stood out, and the preternaturally skilful Mabil made his A-League debut for Adelaide United at the age of 17.
His call-up to the national senior side came in 2018. But, in another irony, he just missed that year’s World Cup — his debut game was the Socceroos’ first after the tournament.
Months later, as Mabil was preparing to take to the field against the United Arab Emirates, his 19-year-old sister, Bor, was killed in a car crash in Adelaide’s north.
“He was playing soccer for Australia when he [received] the news of the loss of his sister,” Mr Kuereng said.
The driver had alcohol and MDMA in his system when he lost control at excessive speed, and was later jailed.
“Every day since my child died, I cannot spend more than 30 minutes without thinking and crying about her death,” Bor and Awer’s mother told an Adelaide Court in 2019.
“My two oldest sons are struggling to accept Bor’s death.”
‘It means a lot to Awer’
Several years before that tragedy, Awer had returned to Kakuma.
The result of the trip was the organisation Barefoot to Boots, which Mabil established with his brother to ensure better “health, education, and gender equality” outcomes for refugees.
While its focus is humanitarian, it also aims to promote the game that has made Mabil an international sporting figure.
“You can see a lot of young kids being introduced to soccer, and that is because of Awer,” Mr Kuereng said.
For Mabil, the World Cup beckons — but the enormity of the journey that has taken him there isn’t lost on him.
“It means a lot to Awer,” Mr Kuereng said.
“In spite of a lot of challenges, he made it.”