Africa: Sumaili Hopes to Positively Influence Burundi Women's Football

Twice, Burundian international Falone Sumaili had made the decision to quit her football career; first, following the demise of her mother and second, when she got a career threatening injury, followed by another loss in the family, her sister.

For her, she didn't believe the game she had played from an early age as a kid was meant for her and pursuing it as a career seemed to be a project in futility.

But a mix of resilience and fate saw her give football a chance, progressing to now play in the English third tier with Bradford City. With the experience she is picking up in the United Kingdom, Sumaili hopes she will be a positive influence to help uplift the women's game in Burundi.

-Born into a footballing family

Sumaili was born in a family of footballers. All her brothers, Mbuyi Jean Marie, Kabeya Kongolo, Kube Levis Banga and Ndizeye Alain Bangama were footballers and turned out for the national team as well.

Her grandfather, Kubi Mwamba was also a footballer.

She might say that her career wasn't influenced by her family, but naturally, it seemed the fruit never fell far from the tree. On the village streets, Sumaili would go around kicking balls and playing with boys in the hood, something that her mother wasn't too much of a fun of.

"I was playing just to make myself happy. Not that I was interested in making a career out of football. My mum never liked it and she would often tell me not to play. But I would always find a way to sneak out and enjoy football," Sumaili explains in an interview with CAFOnline.

She was often encouraged by people who saw her play, including one of the coaches at Bujumbura based giants Atletico Olympique who would often tell her to try professional football. The coach would go as far as begging Sumaili's mum to let the little girl try out a career in football.

Turned mother from doubter to believer

Football fate was waving its hand constantly at Sumaili. They moved houses to another part of the capital and there, she would become close to one of her aunties who was also a football referee. In 2008, she managed to convince her to join a club, La Colombe.

"She (aunty) went and begged my mum and asked her to allow me go. For me, I was also not keen. I was just enjoying my football on the street. No pressure. But I thought, why not. I went there and my first training session, I didn't even have shorts. I went there barefoot and my skirt on!" recalls Sumaili.

She was on and off at La Colombe and wasn't very keen to take her football seriously. The Atletico coach, who had now nicknamed her Maradona tried all he could to encourage her to take football seriously.

He pestered her until it started curving slow and sure in her heart that a career was possible.

The FIFA World Cup hosted in South Africa in 2010 proved a masterstroke.

"I watched the World Cup and as a small girl who loved football, it was very exciting. I started thinking about it and said now that everyone is telling me I am good, I could actually start taking football seriously," she explains.

She ultimately became more committed at her club and when the league was starting in 2011, she was off to a flier. Though she got only a few minutes in the first few matches of the season, she went on to star.

"I used to get like three or five minutes and that made me really mad. I asked myself; In the street I get to play all I want but here, I just get a few minutes. Why should I come here and leave the street where I am enjoying?" Sumaili narrates.

But, with the encouragement of captain Daniella Niyibimenya (now the head coach of the national team) and a close friend in the team Florence Kalume (now playing basketball in the USA), Sumaili kept pushing.

Top scorer, player of the season

She finished the season as one of the two top scorers having notched 17 goals and was named the season's best player. With this performance, her mum was now turned from doubter to believer and she became her daughter's number one fan.

"I now started believing that I could be a big player as we headed into the 2012 season. My mum used to come watch me in training and matches and she really supported me. I got encouraged," she notes.

But, disaster struck that year. Her number one fan, her mum, passed on. That was a heart-breaking moment for the young Sumaili.

"I was really broken and at that moment, nothing meant anything to me. I was so sad and I contemplated quitting football. I didn't have the energy to go on. But after sometime, I picked myself up and decided I would play on to make my mum happy," she notes.

The striker continued giving her best and helped La Colombe win the league title three times in a row.

In 2015, she earned her first move abroad. She signed for Uganda's Gafford Ladies. She arrived at the club when the season was almost ending but it wasn't what she expected much. A tiff and misunderstanding with the coach almost saw her fail to return for the new season.

She travelled back home to Bujumbura. It was at the start of political tensions in the East African nation and with constant battles and gunshots all over, she decided to go back to Uganda.

A new coach and a new spirit saw her give an unmatched performance and she led the team all the way to the semi-finals of the play-off.

Then, disaster number two struck.

"It is one of the strangest things ever. I was just training trying to dribble past a teammate when my foot was locked up in the ground. My knee twisted so badly and I couldn't even walk. I was sad because we were headed to the semis and I had just received a call up to the national team ahead of the CECAFA Women's Championship in 2016," Sumaili recalls.

Injury nightmare and contemplating to quit

She returned to Bujumbura in May 2016 and the extent of the injury made her think twice about her career. "The injury was so bad that everyone told me I could not play football again. I almost started believing them. What made it worse is that in December, I lost my sister. Then again, my world went dark. I was recovering from injury and now my sister was gone. It was horribly sad for me."

With two heavy burdens breaking her back, Sumaili, for the second time, decided she wasn't playing football again.

But in sadness, she couldn't escape the comfort that playing football brings. Six months after her injury, she slowly began playing again.

She wanted to go back to her former club La Colombe, but they refused to let her in, saying her injury would not allow her to play again.

"They decided to take me to a team in the village called Fofila PF. I said it's okay. I was sad, but I wanted to try and come back again. I told myself I would go there and do my best. I started playing in 2017 and suddenly, I felt some new energy. It was like I was born afresh. I was moving in such a way that shocked me and my speed was improved," an excited Sumaili recalls.

Like a jilted lover, La Colombe noticed her form and wanted her back. But she refused. She stayed on with Fofila and ended the 2017 season as top scorer and finally earned a call up to the national team, but this time with the Under-20.

They played the African qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, where Sumaili scored five goals in four matches. She scored four against Djibouti in the preliminary round and scored one as they beat South Africa 2-0 in Bujumbura in the second round but were eliminated after losing 5-0 away.

Relocating to the United Kingdom

Her exploits earned her another move, this time travelling to neighbouring Tanzania where she joined Evergreen FC.

In Tanzania, she only played four matches for the side before travelling back to Burundi to join her family ahead of their relocation to the United Kingdom in January 2018.

In the UK, Sumaili's family moved to Bradford and for her, she wasn't thinking about continuing with her football career. But it took another eye from outside to convince her to try go on with her football.

"One of the boys who loves in the same street as us saw me play. He knew me from back home and knew about my family and the football talent and he connected me to someone who took me to Bradford for trials,"

"I went into the first training but I was really scared. We played a 10-minute game and I asked the coach to play as a striker. But I didn't see much of the ball. Maybe I touched it just twice. But after the game, the coach came straight with papers and asked me to sign. She said she was pleased with my work ethic and movement," she says.

That is how in June 2018, Sumaili became a Bradford FC player. It of course came with challenges, but the forward has proved to be an important player and has been handed a contract extension for the new season set to start this month.

She hopes she can pick enough experience to take back to the national team and help Burundi put up a strong side that can challenge for qualification to the Total Africa Women's Cup of Nations.

She was called up for the Africa Under-20 Championship qualifier at the start of the year and was also listed for the senior team's AWCON qualifier against Uganda.

"I think in Burundi we have so much talent but we have so much to fix. There is so much work to be done. First, we need to ensure that there is merit in picking players for the team. Also, we have to work as a unit and with one purpose and direction,"

"Players need to have each other's back and fight for the team. If we don't do that then I don't believe there is enough progress we can make. That is the problem now. We need to embrace each other and be happy for each other's success,"

"The Federation also needs to invest more in the leagues and national teams. But again, the two have to show result and not give the Federation a reason not to invest. The players should play with focus and a target. Not just playing for fashion or to make money. If women in Burundi can unite, then we can do something great that will make people believe in us," she states.

Sumaili has also asked the Federation to invest more in the Youth teams as it is these set ups that can help the team progress and qualify for the AWCON.

While she waits for her next Burundi phone call, Sumaili has her eyes set on flying the East African nation's flag high, as the leagues resume post-COVID-19.

"It has really been a tough period for everyone because I had big targets for the season that just ended both with the club and national team. But we mist accept the situation and bounce back."

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