When Falone Sumaili was born, Burundi had no women’s national team. But tonight, she will lead the line for the Swallows as they play their final match of their Africa Cup of Nations campaign. As a refugee, the privilege of such an occasion is not lost on her.
Born in the DRC, Sumaili’s family fled conflict in the country and relocated to Burundi while they applied for asylum status in the UK. On the streets of Bujumbura, Sumaili found her love of football. But she only formally joined a women’s football club at the age of 16. Before that, she was limited to playing street football with the boys.
“My uncle and my grandfather played football, but my mum did not want me to play football. She thought it was too hard; if you play football, you won’t be able to be married. You will look like a boy.”
A new beginning
After her uncle convinced her mother to let her go on trial at La Colombe, a women’s club, Sumaili was finally able to play competitively. She spent a few years playing football in Burund and in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. It was in Tanzania, where she was playing amateur football, when she received a call from home.
“My dad called me and told me that we want to go to England. Everything is ready. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘No. You’re joking.'”
But he wasn’t. After more than 15 years of waiting on their application, Sumaili’s family was granted asylum in the UK in January 2018 and relocated to Bradford. Yet, when Sumaili arrived in Bradford, she had given up hopes of playing football.
“In my mind when I went to England. I wanted to go to school and study and work hard. Football was not on my mind.
“I went to watch some of the African boys train. And there was someone who knew me from Burundi. He came to me and said, ‘Falone, do you still play football?’ I said no. He said, ‘Let me ask some guy here about the football.’
“After two weeks, he emailed Bradford asking for me to come try.”
Sumaili impressed on her trial and was offered a spot on the team in the fourth tier and began training with the first team. She went on to score 13 goals in the 33 appearances for the Bantams.
Working up the pyramid
Former coach at Bradford City, Chris Hames, was full of praise for Sumaili as she transitioned to joining the Bantams.
“She had many hurdles to overcome when joining the squad,” said Hames. “And it took time, but she has done really well. She is really driven. She was driven to make the most of her football career here [in England], but also in her career at an international level.”
After two years at Bradford, Sumaili sought new pastures and took the step up to join Huddersfield Town in the third tier. Impressing the development squad, Sumaili made a few appearances for the first team and received the called up for her Burundi international debut in a Women’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Djibouti.
For her current Terriers coach Alan Eastwood, having a full international was a first.
“When she said that she was away on international duty, I thought she was joking. She explained that she plays for Burundi and that she was in the qualifiers for the AFCON.”
A Cup of Nations to remember
Having helped the Swallows qualify for their first-ever Africa Cup of Nations, Sumaili will line up tonight against some of the best talent Africa has to offer in the shape of Nigeria. But Sumaili is not daunted by the task.
“It’s a good, good opportunity for us. If we play Nigeria, they have many players in Europe. They have many big names. When we play Nigeria, everyone will be looking at the Burundi players. If you want a future, playing Nigeria and South Africa is big to become professional.”
Sumaili cites Asisat Oshoala, the recent La Liga golden boot winner and Champions League finalist with Barcelona, as an inspiration.
“The players fear players like Oshoala. But for me, I look forward and see this is a big, big opportunity. I play as much as I can to show them who I am. I’m a striker, and I need to read many things from Oshoala to be better.”
Sumaili must look up to the likes of Oshoala, as the Burundian women’s national team only began in 2016. After all, the Swallows comprises mainly of locally-based players plying their trade in the amateur national league in Burundi.
But the team has come a long way in those six years, having qualified for their first AFCON at only their third attempt. Also, in the most recent CECAFA East African tournament, the Swallows came in second — only narrowly losing to hosts Uganda in the final.
For Sumaili, it has been a long and challenging journey for her to come to Morocco. But if she retains her determination and resilience, it could also begin a new journey for her.