Photo by ISIphotos.com
Bakary Soumare thought he was close to realizing a dream, but had little idea just how far away he was.
A native of Mali, Soumare spent his formative years as a soccer player in the United States, where his game was honed and reputation made. He owed much of his success as a player to his adopted home country and planned on repaying America by wearing its uniform.
At least that was the plan before he was faced with the harsh reality that he would have to wait at least two more years to receive American citizenship. That fact forced him to make a decision that he not only felt was better for his career, but a decision that he knew some close to him would be very happy with.
Soumare has decided to play for the Mali national team.
Soumare has given up on his quest to play for the U.S. national team and is set to accept a call-up for Mali’s upcoming friendly on Nov. 19 friendly against Algeria in Paris, France. The Chicago Fire’s potential participation in MLS Cup (Nov. 23) could affect Soumare’s involvement in the friendly, but wouldn’t change the fact that Soumare has made the decision to play for Mali.
In an exclusive interview with SBI, Soumare went into detail about his decision and the factors that led to it.
Soumare’s final decision came down to choosing between waiting more than two years in order to play for the United States, and missing out on a chance for international competition during that time, or going with his birth nation, and giving himself a chance to compete in the African Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifying in 2009, as well as a possible trip to the 2010 World Cup.
“I just had to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to wait two and a half years to start playing national team soccer’,” Soumare said. “Knowing that Mali has a good shot at (the 2010 World Cup), and knowing all the chances I could have playing for Mali, I decided to go for it.”
It was just two months ago when Soumare was speaking with excitement about his desire to play for the U.S. national team, but little did he know that the information that led him to believe American citizenship was something he could secure quickly was false.
“It seemed like there were ways to get that process expedited so I thought to myself, ‘if it takes a year then why not (talk about it)’,” Soumare said. “I know that I’ve done my best to be a part of the team here in the United States, I did my homework and everything I could on my end, but it just couldn’t happen.”
“Sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to go,” Soumare said. “In a perfect world I would be playing for the U.S. national team. Everything I am as a person and as a soccer player has been helped by America so I wanted to give back.
“That said, I’m also excited to be playing for Mali,” Soumare said. “My father is very excited, my family back home is very excited. Either way I was going, there were going to be people who would be disappointed.”
Soumare knows one person who would have approved of his decision. His mother, who died just weeks after he was drafted by the Fire, always wanted him to play for Mali and remembering that fact caused Soumare to fight back some emotions as he recalled his mother and considered what she might have thought of his decision.
"That’s one of the things in the past that I thought about but I didn’t want to base my entire decision on that," Soumare said. "When I told my dad, the first thing he said to me is ‘your mother would have been proud to see you play for Mali’."
A finalist for MLS defender of the year, Soumare is prepared to accept a call-up from Mali for the African nation’s upcoming friendly against Algeria in Paris on Nov. 19. At the young age of 22, Soumare is hoping the call-up is the first step toward becoming a regular for a Mali team that boasts several standouts in midfield and at forward, but no real standouts in defense.
Part of Soumare’s decision was having the chance to play for Mali in the African Nation’s Cup and World Cup qualifying in 2009. Those opportunities, along with the chance to potentially play for Mali in the 2010 World Cup, were too difficult to pass up for a 22-year-old with aspirations that include making a club move to Europe.
“Those are a lot of games,” Soumare said. “We are talking about two years worth of soccer games that can help my development as a soccer player, playing in a top international environment and in big competitions.”
With a roster that includes Frederick Kanoute, Mohamed Sissoko, Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra, Mali must finish first in an African World Cup qualifying group that includes Ghana, Benin and Sudan in order to qualify for World Cup 2010. Mali has never qualified for the World Cup.
Born in Mali before moving to France at an early age, Soumare moved to the United States at 15. He played high school soccer in New York City before attending the University of Virginia. He blossomed into a top pro prospect and impressed enough to have the Chicago Fire take him with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 MLS Draft.
After showing some flashes of skill as a rookie, Soumare has enjoyed a breakout second season in MLS, serving as the anchor on a Chicago defense that allowed the second-fewest goals in the league. He has established himself as one of the top central defenders in MLS, as evidenced by his status as an MLS defender of the year finalist.