Sunday April 10, 2022
By Adam Robinson
Bilal Hersi, a former Lewiston High School standout, is finishing his sophomore year at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. Amy Bass photo
Lewiston High School graduate Bilal Hersi was sleeping in his room at Siena College in February when he was woken up by a phone call.
The caller was a Somalia national soccer team coach inviting Hersi to the team's camp in March.
"There were a lot of emotions," Hersi said.
Hersi's parents were born in Somalia. He previously made the country's U20 team, in the fall of 2020.
Hersi hurried to finish his school work, and he filled out the necessary paperwork to be able to fly to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he joined a group of 30 players trying to make the 26-man roster.
The 20-year-old Hersi was youngest player in the camp, but he made the roster and ended up playing in three of the team's four games, and started two, over the next few weeks.
Hersi's only objective heading into the camp was to prove himself. Being a starter wasn't on his mind. But the coaches told Hersi that they watched his game film from college and his time with the Somali U-20 team and liked what they saw.
"They told me before that they're not just bringing me in to bring me in; they liked what they saw and they want young players to get the chance to play," Hersi, a forward, said. "If we show that we have what it takes then we can play. I can give myself the opportunity to play. That was a big win coming in, that I knew that I had a chance to play."
Somalia's first game was a friendly against Young Africans, or Yanga, in front of a packed crowd in Dar es Salaam on March 12.
"Playing against them was a way to measure myself and the progress I've made," Hersi said. "I also got to represent my country, and having that opportunity for the first time, it has been a dream of mine to get to that stage. Some of those players I was watching last summer in the Arab Cup. Even in the World Cup qualifiers, I was watching them at school.
"Making that jump and playing with some of those guys and playing on the biggest stage like that, it was a surreal moment. I still have a lot to work on, but it felt like the best thing on earth. The best thing I've ever felt."
Hersi started that first game and was involved in the play that set up Somalia's lone goal. He pushed the ball up to the left side of the penalty box and made a short pass to a teammate, who passed to the goal scorer.
Walking out onto the field was a movie-like experience for Hersi.
"I remember walking in and there were 20- to 25-thousand people there," Hersi said. "I was like, 'Is this real?' It was like a movie scene and the player comes out and there is just everyone and you're looking around. I just told myself I was going to enjoy it and take in the moment because a lot of those don't happen often. Especially to a 20-year-old representing his country. Besides the anthem part and starting the qualifier game, just putting on the jersey for the first time and playing against guys I've watched, it was crazy."
Somalia's next game was against Azam FC on March 19. It was another friendly before the team played in two African Cup of Nations qualifying games against Eswatini.
Hersi played about 45 minutes as one of 11 players who entered the game about halfway through so the coaches could try out different player combinations.
Hersi started the first African Cup of Nations qualifier against Eswatini, played in Tanzania on March 23, which Eswatini won 3-0.
Back in Lewiston, at Connors Elementary School, Hersi's sister, Halima, showed the Somalia and Eswatini qualifier to her students.
"She used my game as a tool to teach something and for a writing exercise," Hersi said. "I visited the school over Thanksgiving break, and I helped out, talked to the kids, and the group of kids, she works with them a little more and ... she put the game on for them.
"After the game they did a little writing exercise and she sent them to me, and it was pretty cool to see, not going to lie."
Hersi didn't play in the the second leg of the qualifying round, which Eswatini won 2-1 on March 27 and moved on with a 5-1 aggregate score. Somalia was eliminated.
Hersi heard from many people after each game. He said that the outpouring of support from Lewiston and friends and family all over the world meant a lot to him.
"My family was watching, and they were so excited, finally seeing me play for the first team," Hersi said. "For my dad, who was into Somalia football growing up, it was a really big moment for him. My brothers, who are on the road to achieving their dreams, my nephews, nieces, sisters, my family across the world, it was a lot. All of them came in, they were all excited for me, and I was happy that I could put in a performance they were happy with. The first game, when I made my debut, the support was amazing."
Hersi was happy with his performance over the four games and the training camp. While growing up in Lewiston, he dreamed of playing for Somalia but knew it would be difficult to achieve.
"People forget that I am from Lewiston, Maine," said Hersi, who won two Class A state championships with the Blue Devils and twice was named Gatorade Player of the Year. "There aren't a lot of resources for us to succeed, in general. As much as I had those dreams, a lot of times, as much as I don't like it, I would be realistic. It's crazy to even think about it, but as things happen, they happen. Growing up, I always wanted to represent Somalia, my parent's country, the country that I feel rooted in me."
Hersi is excited about his future with the Somali national team (which, by the way, did not qualify for the World Cup that will be played in Qatar this November and December). He hopes his time with the team is a stepping stone for his future. He also said it now is his responsibility to inspire future players.
"There's a bright future for me and for Somali football, and this is just the start," Hersi said. "I'm excited for what's ahead and can't wait to see what is in store for myself and Somali football. Lots of hard work ahead, but we are getting close to the end goal, inshallah. We as Somali players need to use this platform we have to inspire the next generation of football talent. There's so much in store and the world will notice very soon."