In deciding to accept a callup from Mali for its friendly later this month against Algeria, Chicago defender Bakary Soumare is paying homage to his homeland, not snubbing his adopted country.
Soumare, 22, holds a U.S. green card and has researched the procedures for obtaining citizenship, but that process usually takes a minimum of five years, and in the post 9-11 era, could take even longer. Rather than being 18 months or two years away from obtaining citizenship, as he believed earlier this year, he could be facing a much longer wait. The callup from Mali and the prospect of playing next year in the African Nations Cup qualifiers, which will also be used for determine 2010 World Cup participants, proved too good an opportunity to pass up.
"I've spent a lot of time here," says Soumare, a native of Bamako who lived in Paris and New York and played college soccer at Virginia. "I feel just as much American even though I'm from Mali. I've developed here as a player and culturally. I owe my soccer to this country. But there are a lot of things to do. I'm living the American dream right now: go to school, do well academically, turn pro and do well."
If Chicago reaches MLS Cup, Soumare might have to decline at the last minute or join his teammates a few days before MLS Cup, because the Algeria match on Nov. 19 precedes the championship game by just four days.
He would join Fire teammate and Costa Rican international Gonzalo Segares, drafted by Chicago out of Virginia Commonwealth, as players who used college soccer and MLS as stepping stones to their national teams. Playing for Mali would also strengthen his resolve to serve his country in other ways, and follow in the footsteps of one of his idols, Sevilla striker and 2007 African Footballer of the Year Freddie Kanoute.
"I was born in Africa and grew up in Europe [Paris] and moved to New York, so I've moved around quite a bit on three continents and I've seen a lot of things," says Soumare. "You learn from those experiences and some of the things you see really open up your eyes."
Like Soumare, Kanoute lived in France, and while Soumare was growing up he followed Kanoute's career at Lyon, Tottenham, and West Ham. Kanoute has launched a project to found and fund a "Children's Village" in Mali.
"Kanoute would have to be the best of the bunch for me not just for what he does on the field but what he does off the field as well," says Soumare, who spoke with another Malian international, Seydou Keita of Barcelona, last summer while he pondered his choices. "Keita is one of my favorites. I try to use guys that like that as role models to help in those ways as much as possible."
One of his mentors in this regard is Fire teammate Diego Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Nothing But Nets campaign that took the organization's fight against malaria and other infectious diseases to Mali last December. According to the organization's web site, more than 2 million bed nets have been distributed on the African continent. MLS W.O.R.K.S. is one of the organization's partners.
"Diego Gutierrez and I have had many, many conversations and it's something I'm really interested in getting involved in," says Soumare of the Colombian-born midfielder who has announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. "I've been working with Diego a little bit with things like that. He's always in meetings and seminars and sending e-mails. He spends so, so much time and that's what people don't realize.
"We're not the NFL or NBA, but there's nothing more valuable than your time and the commitment you can make. It shows that if you take the time and effort, you can make great, great things happen."